Manila: To stop the Philippines from deteriorating into a narco-state, President Rodrigo Duterte is looking to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to nine, a call that supports the passage of a proposed bill filed by House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez at the House of Representatives in early 2017.

Drug syndicates are tapping minors as runners, said Duterte during a dinner for media in Davao City, southern Philippines, late Friday night.

“The runner, did it not surprise you? I’m not talking of a particular case. Did it not occur to your mind that there are a lot of children [on the lowest level of the drugs trade]? A child who commits a crime, they go scot-free, [there is] no criminal liability at all. [There is] not even a recording [of his crime] on the police blotter. What is recorded in the blotter [is an] unidentified [young suspect who committed a crime],” said Duterte.

Congress should amend Republic Act 9344, the current juvenile law, authored by Sen. Francisco Pangilinan, which was passed in 2006, said Duterte.

“It is a short-sighted law. It acknowledged the social problem of juvenile delinquents but did not specify the measure in solving it,” criticised Duterte, adding the law has created “generations and generations of Filipinos who are criminals and do not have a sense of accountability.”

Duterte did not mention his preferred age for a minor to be considered liable for a crime committed.

But House Speaker Alvarez and Congressman Fredenil Castro of Capiz, central Philippines said they wanted to lower the minimum age for criminal liability from the current 15 years old to nine years old — to deter minors from being used as accomplices, especially in drug-related cases when they filed the “Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility Act (House Bill number 2) to amend Republic Act No. 9344 in early 2017.

In reaction, Trixie Manalo, 10, of The Unity of Child Rights Advocates Against Inhumane Treatment and Neglect of Children (Unchain Children) said, “Most kids do not fully understand the consequences of their actions, especially if they are forced upon by cash-strapped and unemployed parents.”

“At 15, kids could discern between good and evil. But younger kids cannot,” argued Joms Salvador, secretary general of Gabriela, a sectoral party at the House of Representatives.

“Children deserve and need our guidance and support, not severe punishment,” cautioned Congressman Teodoro Baguilat.

“Reducing the minimum age of criminal responsibility goes against the best interests of the child and threatens the well-being of the most vulnerable children,” argued the United Nations Children Fund.

The Philippines has recorded a 9.84 average of intentional homicide per 100,000 inhabitants in 2014, according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC). It is slightly higher than the World Health Organization’s 8.9 global average of murder per 100,000 residents.

Against that backdrop, only 2 per cent of Philippines’ total crime incidents are committed by children, half of which are poverty-related crimes such as theft — based on data by the Philippine National Police (PNP), said activists who have vowed to fight plans of Congress to lower the age of criminal liability. “There is no need to punish more children needlessly,” they added.