Home Commentary Once more for the children in prison

Once more for the children in prison

It is astounding that developed civilized nations like Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Switzerland, South Africa, Hong Kong, Fiji, and the United States have 10 years as the minimum age of criminal responsibility for children. It’s a mark of shame.

The United Nations Committee on Children’s Rights says that 16 is the ideal, but 14 years of age for criminal responsibility is the minimum. Most people believe this is right.

The United States has 11 years as the minimum age of criminal responsibility. It’s wrong that children as young as 10 are being tried as adults. A judge in Wisconsin recently found a 10-year-old girl charged with murder.

The U.N. recommendation reflects current research in child development and neuroscience, which says that abstract reasoning skills are not fully developed in children aged 12 and 13.

“State parties are encouraged to take note of recent scientific findings and to increase their minimum age accordingly, to at least 14 years of age,” states the U.N. Committee on Children’s Rights.

It also recommended that “no child be deprived of liberty, unless there are genuine public safety or public health concerns” and that countries increase the minimum age of detention to 16. As child activist Greta Thunberg said, “Believe the science.”

Philippine laws presently set the minimum age of criminal responsibility at 15 years of age. However, in a retrograde step, some members of the Philippine Congress want to lower the age to 12 years of age. Most sensible people oppose this move. 

The mentality of these congressmen and senators is that children as young as 12 have “criminal minds.” Some had wanted it to be reduced to nine years.

They wrongly blame the children for the spread of dangerous drugs. They say without evidence that the children are working as couriers for drug syndicates whereas the evidence shows that many politicians are behind the drug distribution syndicates.

Drug earns money and money is power. There is even a drug war between the political dynasties, 12 mayors and seven vice mayors have been murdered in the past three years. In some cases, the drug syndicate is part of the political dynasty.

So, this false claim against children is a smoke screen for corrupt, political criminal activity. It sensationalizes the issue, as if children are to be blamed for adult crimes, and it is a narrative that conveniently captures the easily swayed feelings of the public and redirects it against the children.

The politicians present themselves as knights in shining armor curbing drug distribution and protecting society.

The children are made the scapegoats for adult crime. The results so far are that child prisons of local government units are filled with young kids guilty of little more than stealing food in the market, sniffing glue, begging at street intersections or breaking the strict curfew hours because they can’t go home to be beaten and left hungry by violent parents.

Children commit in fact only two percent of crimes in the Philippines and they are rarely of a serious nature. Theft is the most frequent crime they commit. Their “crimes” are usually taking junk, metal scrap or plastic or cellphones to sell. They are abandoned, rejected by irresponsible guardians.

The runaways are surviving on the streets by their wits, sleeping in doorways or in carts and cannot find work. Every day, they need to eat at least once. It may be just one meal of “pag-pag,” the re-cooked leftover scraps of food from the plates of restaurant diners.

They are arrested, without evidence or warrants, and jailed indefinitely and have no trial. If they are charged, it takes months or years for a hearing. They are pushed into small cells crowded together without beds in most cases and live in sub-human conditions.

The most vulnerable are small boys 10 to 15-year old. They are abused and bullied by the bigger inmates and almost never see family. Some are abused and beaten by the guards, they claim.

In Cebu, the Operation Second Chance, a detention center with jail cells and 12-foot high walls, saw the escape of 12 teenage children a week ago. The intolerable conditions drove them to escape.

Whereas, in the Preda Foundation New Dawn Home for children-at-risk and children in conflict with the law in Liloan, Cebu, the children are free to choose. They can leave at any time, but they choose to stay, learn, change and improve their lives for the future. They are treated with respect and dignity and live in good conditions with sports, non-formal education classes and outings. 

If you want to help change the lives of hundreds of these detained children, join us in our appeal to the good mayors of Metro Manila who really don’t know about these harsh conditions of life in their Bahay Pag-asa (House of Hope) where children’s rights are being violated. The good mayors want to change their cities for the better and you can help them.

Irish Father Shay Cullen, SSC, established the Preda Foundation in Olongapo City in 1974 to promote human rights and the rights of children, especially victims of sex abuse.

The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of UCA News.

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