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Philippines Considers Lowering Minimum Age Of Criminal Liability


Now we have an update on the campaign against crime in the Philippines. President Rodrigo Duterte has gone outside the law in that campaign, welcoming thousands of extrajudicial killings. Philippine lawmakers are also debating a change in the law itself. This change would allow children as young as 12 to be held criminally responsible as if they are adults. Michael Sullivan reports from Manila.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: In 2006, lawmakers actually got the age of criminal responsibility raised from 9 years of age to 15, arguing in part that putting 9-year-olds in the system was just wrong. At a recent hearing, House justice committee Chair Salvador Leachon said that was a mistake.


SALVADOR LEACHON: Ever since the law was implemented, syndicates have been exploiting the provisions by using minors in the commission of crimes.

SULLIVAN: It's an argument President Rodrigo Duterte has made repeatedly in criticizing the existing law as he pursues his deadly war on drugs - a law that now looks likely to be changed. Carlos Conde is a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Manila.

CARLOS CONDE: Because of his extreme popularity, because of the drug war - the fear that it strikes in people - basically what he wants to do happens because he controls both houses of Congress right now, and he still demands so much support.

SULLIVAN: Duterte supporters insist getting 12- to 15-year-olds in conflict with the law off the streets and into detention and rehabilitation centers will help curb crime and help the children. Critics vehemently disagree.

LIANE ALAMPAY: It's insane. It's without basis.

SULLIVAN: Liane Alampay is a professor of psychology at the Ateneo de Manila University who specializes in child and adolescent development.

ALAMPAY: There is absolutely no evidence from a scientific perspective, from a data perspective, child protection - child rights perspective.

SULLIVAN: Opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros says the government's focus should be elsewhere.

RISA HONTIVEROS: First of all, we should be going after the real big-time syndicates and other criminals who are still scot-free until today.

SULLIVAN: Instead of children, she says, most of whom are poor like many of those killed in the drug war to date. And finding a place to put new offenders will be a challenge, too. Fewer than half the 100-plus facilities mandated by existing law have been built. And many that have aren't pretty.

CONDE: I visited one of these Bahay ng Pag-asa or House of Hope facilities, and it was horrifying.

SULLIVAN: Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch.

CONDE: Sanitation was bad. The food was really bad as well. A lot of the kids have skin diseases. Water was leaking from the toilet. And they were sleeping on the concrete floor and not too far from where the wet toilet was. It was just horrible, really.

SULLIVAN: But presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo insists President Duterte's priority is the children when it comes to changing the law.


SALVADOR PANELO: So to my mind, he wants that amended to protect the children. So it will deter the criminals from using the minors.

SULLIVAN: Opponents scoff at this idea and say the criminals will just find even younger children - poor children like those who make up the majority of those currently in trouble with the law.

ALAMPAY: They live in the streets. They're not in school. They're pretty much neglected.

SULLIVAN: Psychologist Liane Alampay.

ALAMPAY: And so from our perspective, it's really unjust that children are punished for what we see as society's failings to protect them.

SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Manila.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERAJIKA TRACKS' "PAVANE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.