By Fr. Shay Cullen
The lower chamber of the Philippine Congress is going to approve the lowering of the minimum age of criminal liability of a child from the present 15 years-of-age to 12-years-of-age. They really want to reduce it to 9, but public outcry forced the politicians to change. Yet, 12 years old is too young to impute criminal liability. What knowledge and discernment do uneducated, impoverished, hungry street children at 12 years old know and understand?
The Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act is a good law if it were to be implemented. But it is not. Out of more than a hundred highly-urbanized cities and provinces that are supposed to build homes for the children, only 40 have done it. Unfortunately, some of these purported homes for children called Bahay Pag-asa are, in reality, jails for children where thousands now languish hungry, underfed and abused.
At present, these are cruel detention centers where the children are mostly treated as criminals held for weeks and months behind steel bars. Practically no activities, exercise, entertainment or education are provided in most places. Many of the children suffer bullying and sexual and physical abuse by the older detainees. If the minimum age of criminal liability is lowered to nine or 12, even more will be added to these numbers.
This we know since our work at the Preda Foundation for the past 45 years has been to rescue them and give them a happy home in an open center without guards, gates or fences. We give them freedom of choice to decide to stay and get educated, and 95 percent choose to stay. They are not criminal pawns of criminal syndicates as Congress people assert.
This is the present reality of child detention centers, with only a few encouraging exceptions. Thousands of small children are in fact behind bars in subhuman conditions, their rights violated day and night. It is a horrific disgrace for the proud Filipino people.
This law is not being implemented to this day. The small children, some as young as ten, are in fact locked up in these overcrowded cells, in stinking, sub-human conditions. The Philippine Congress, in its lack of understanding and knowledge about this reality, will condemn many children as young as 12 to rot in jails where they will be sexually and physically abused. That will be on their conscience.
They should make it mandatory for each local government to build a real home for children under the direction of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council (JJWC) and to mandatorily fund its operation every year. Local governments must not put children behind bars. The congressmen and senators will not call child victims of these horrid cells to testify before them. They might hear the truth if they did. They have never visited the child detention centers and they know nothing about human suffering.
It is untrue and a wild fantasy of Congress people that children have recovery, therapy, values formation, medical care, education in “nice” children’s homes run by a “caring, benevolent” local government. It is the opposite: the children are treated as criminals and suffer hardship, hunger and are devastated as human beings that do not even have hope of anything better.
Millions of pesos have been provided to the Juvenile Justice Welfare Council to oversee the implementation of the Republic Act 9344 or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act, but much of the money has gone unused. Local mayors do not listen or follow the advice of the Council. The JJWC has no power to compel compliance with the law.
The local government officials are not interested in building a nice, clean well-managed home for abandoned children who are at risk or in dire circumstances or in conflict with the law. The politicians consider the ragged, hungry, homeless, abused street children, not as children in need of help, but as vermin, pests, undeserving poor, throwaway creatures, useless and not even human. “They have criminal minds,” one top official said about street children.
If a nation is judged on its reputation as morally upright and dignified by the way it treats its poor and neglected children, then the Philippines gets a very low score if any at all. The national pride of the Philippine nation suffers when it comes to the plight of its neglected street children. National dignity is sullied and it is nowhere to be found.
Officials and politicians, many of them uncaring rich elite, having never been deprived of anything, unjustly and wrongly call the thousands of hungry children criminals and accuse them of working for crime syndicates as drug delivery boys and girls. But there is no sound, proven information or evidence to back up that reckless assertion and false accusation.
Look at the facts: Out of all recorded crimes, 98 percent are done by adults and only 2 percent by minors. Out of all alleged wrongdoing by minors, only 2 percent are allegedly committed by children less than nine years of age. Children 9 to 11 years of age are responsible for only 7 percent of all wrongdoing by minors. Minors 12 to 15 years of age are responsible for 43 percent of wrongdoing by minors; whereas youth 15 to 18 years of age are responsible for 48 percent of alleged wrongdoing committed by minors.
It is clear that the 2 percent of crimes committed by minors is miniscule and do not deserve harsh treatment and punishment. Child detention in the Philippines today is a horrific, unjust, undeserved punishment that is detrimental and destructive to the child.
The children see that some of the rich politicians get away with massive crimes of plunder and wallow in putrid corruption, creating poverty and homelessness. Many children struggle to survive and eat one scant meal a day.
Preda Foundation was founded 45 years ago to help children at risk and in conflict with the law and those falsely accused and abused and jailed without evidence. The many children rescued have the given testimony of what they suffered. They were saved and started a new happier life at the Preda open center of freedom and dignity.