There are some haunting images from the past when children as young as six-years-old were put in jail behind bars in cells mixed with adults where they were abused by paedophiles.
They are mostly hungry children guilty of begging for a bit of food in the street to survive, but then jailed as criminals. But some members of the congress want them back in jail and have introduced a bill to lower the minimum age of criminal liability from 15 to 12, and even as young as nine. It is a return to the penal code of the 1930s.
But the jailing of small children, as happened under past laws, is still going on today and children are put behind bars. It is forbidden by the law, Republic Act 10630, and lowering the minimum age of criminal liability will make the practice all the more common.
Local governments do not have a proper facility for detaining children in conflict with the law and children at risk. They only have jail cells.
How much more will they be abused if the congress changes and amends the law allowing nine- or 12-year-old children to be held criminally liable even for small misdemeanours?
Children, boys and girls, are being picked up in violation of a curfew decree and held in jail cells. They are vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse under those conditions and are frequently left unfed and sleeping on the concrete floors.
Is that what the people of The Philippines want to do to their most abused and neglected children?
The criminalisation and jailing of children is in violation of the best interests of the child. It is a violation of their rights and forbidden by the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Philippine law under Republic Act 7610.
The best interests of the child and respect for their human rights should be the number one priorities and be regarded as being much more important than lowering the age of criminal liability, which simply brands them as criminals.
It is clear that the members of the congress rooting for the lowering the minimum age of criminality have never met or seen the majority of street children and young people who are taken from the streets and jailed.
If they took the trouble to meet them, they would see that they are small, malnourished, ordinary children desperate for respect, attention, affection, friendship, food, education, skills training and, if 16 and older, a job and a chance of reconciliation with a solid family.
The UNICEF and other international and local organisations have repeatedly stated this fact.
The child is a child in need of a childhood, not prison and criminal court proceedings.
Although the prison system is bad, it is far less violent than what some others would propose, simply shooting them, which apparently has become a state policy simply by branding them as drug suspects.
Up to 6,000 people, with considerable numbers of them minors, are believed to have been shot and killed on sight.
Teenagers are in need of education and skills training, not criminalised, as this only assures they get a good apprenticeship as real and hardened criminals.
As they are treated so they will become. For 44 years, the PREDA Foundation has offered rehabilitation and recovery therapy to young people living in its therapeutic community within an open home.
There is no need for guards and cells, gates or fences. They are children in need, not criminals. The proven track record of the foundation shows this to be true. They recover from abuse and neglect with respect and their dignity is restored through therapy.
Young people in conflict with the law take any chance to grow and reform their neglected and broken lives. But once badly treated and abused by the authorities, and treated as criminals, it is extremely difficult to convince them that they are not criminals and able to make a new life.
Lowering the age of criminal liability and treating the young people and children as criminals will only make situation worse.
Congress will be responsible for sowing the seeds of anger and revolt in the hearts of these children. They will grow to be anti-social adults and seek revenge on those who tormented and abused them.
With punitive abuse, the government and society become the punisher of children, not the healer and protector.
If we allow this to happen we will lose thousands of young people to the world of criminality instead of saving them for the future-building of the country. They are poor and helpless before authoritarian law.
When criminals exploit children, then the police and authorities should go after the adult criminals, instead of being too afraid to touch them, and not just arrest and prosecute children.
Adults exploiting children can be prosecuted more easily under Republic Act 7610—the child protection law.
Children so victimised can and will testify against suspected abusers and exploiters, and convictions will follow. We appeal to the intelligent and wise people in the congress to leave the minimum age of criminal liability where it is now, at 15-years-of-age.
What really must be done is to protect and help them through diversion and rehabilitation, and to strictly implement a law that says local governments must have proper therapeutic homes for children in conflict with the law and children at risk—not jails and prison cells.
● Father Shay Cullen www.preda.org