Children as collateral damage for crimes?

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JUST A DAY after the Sinulog Festival, a Filipino tradition honoring the Child Jesus, the House of Representatives approved House Bill 8858 which sought to lower the age of criminal liability to nine years old.

Even if it was later changed to 12, it is still perplexing to think of reconciling a people who celebrate the humility and innocence of Sto. Niño, who at the same time support a legislation that criminalizes children for being victims of poverty in a country, governed by incompetence and corruption.

It is a shame to realize that the representatives of the people—let that sink in, our representatives!—can consider children as criminals while they cuddle their already convicted amigos! Did it not even occur to them that lowering the minimum age of criminal liability could encourage and justify the abuse of children?

The pathetic logic of these legislators—again, our representatives!—goes: Since we are part of the system that can’t implement the law, let us change the law that we can’t implement. The congress does not see that the real problem lies in the implementation of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 (JJWA) that holds the minimum age of criminal liability at 15 years old. It is simply not the law, it is them.

Instead of lowering the minimum criminal liability age, the amendments should address the underlying reasons as to why and how the children get involved in criminal activities.

Justice panel chair congressman Salvador Leachon gives false hopes to the public when he said that children would not be jailed in ordinary prisons, but in “reformative institutions” like the Bahay Pag-asa. True, the JJWA states that each of the 81 provinces and 33 cities must have a child-caring institution. But to note, the country only has around 55 operational Bahay Pag-asa units. Voila! Our good representatives would need more budget conveniently justified by what the JJWA requires.

In addition to our lamentations, the existing child-caring units have been proven to be ineffective as they cannot provide the psychological and physiological needs suitable to young minds.

The congestion in the Bahay Pag-asa units would also worsen, leaving the repercussion of an unsanitary and unhealthful environment to the children.

If they are really for the interest and welfare of the children, government officials should focus its amendments on improving the dismal conditions of the existing child-care facilities and programs. The lack of rehabilitation and maintenance of the facilities reflects the sincerity that these politicians have toward these matters concerning children.

Aside from the rehabilitation efforts, the government’s approach in addressing the issue should always boil down to poverty. Crime reports from the Philippine National Police states that most of the children in conflict with the law were from the poor communities or indigent families.

Lawmakers who lobby and support the current amendments pin the accountability to young minds who cannot even fully grasp the consequences of their actions, making them easy targets of exploitation and abuse. What the government should be concerned about is how to establish a mechanism that would liberate the children from violence and exploitation and not just letting them live in an oppressive society that compels them to engage in criminal acts.

If the bill becomes a law, the government would betray its mandate in protecting and asserting the rights of the children.

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