MANILA - The chief of the Philippine National Police said Thursday that he supports a bill to lower the criminal age, but there should be a program to reform youth offenders.
President Rodrigo Duterte sought the proposed law to further extend his deadly crackdown on drugs and crime, which has killed thousands since mid-2016.
His allies originally proposed lowering the "age of criminal liability" to 9, but after mounting outrage the House of Representatives raised it to 12 and passed the bill on the second reading.
"Lowering the age to 12 or 9, whatever, we will enforce the law if it will be passed. What's important here is the system and the program for the rehabilitation of the children," PNP chief Director General Oscar Albayalde told ANC.
"We have to give children a chance to rehab themselves and probably to reintegrate them into society and become productive citizens," he added.
Under the current set-up, police turn over juvenile delinquents to reform facilities dubbed "Bahay Pag-asa." The children, however, are often released back into their communities because the rehabilitation centers lack funds, said Albayalde.
Some municipalities, he added, do not have enough Internal Revenue Allotment to support Bahay Pag-asa.
"We have to have funds for this, we have to have programs, we have to have a good system," he said.
Police accosted 12,136 children in conflict with the law across the country from 2016 to 2018, according to Albayalde.
Of the total, 4,000 were involved in robbery and theft, 1,700 in rape and 1,000 in illegal drugs.
Many of these children come from broken and poor families, while some are exploited by syndicates or their own parents, Albayalde said.
The current age at which children are held criminally liable in the Philippines is 15.
If the Senate -- where the bill has attracted greater opposition -- approves it the Philippines would join countries like Afghanistan which punish 12-year-old children for criminal acts.
"We still think that 12 is a very young age for children to be held criminally responsible," Human Rights Watch campaigner Carlos Conde told AFP Wednesday.
"The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has stated that the age of criminal responsibility should be at least 14 years, and should under no circumstances be reduced below that," he added.
The bill passed by the House calls for "mandatory" confinement at a special "youth care facility" for children who commit serious crimes like murder, rape and arson -- but also for car theft.
If the court determines they did not reform at the juvenile holding facility, they can be put in adult prison -- which are notoriously overcrowded and dangerous -- when they turn 18 years old.
With a report from Agence France-Presse