Indian Catholic News

Criminals at 9 years old?

The move to lower the age of criminal liability in the Philippines is detrimental to children.

Children living in the streets are often linked to criminal activities. A proposal to lower the age of criminal liability from 15-years-old to 9-years-old is pending in the Philippine Congress. (Photo by Eloisa Lopez)
By Father Shay Cullen

Andres is a 10-year-old child, and has lived in the streets of Manila most of his life, like thousands of other street children.

They are abandoned, work as scavengers, and are vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse. They are uneducated and without family or social welfare, care, or protection. They are completely vulnerable to the influence of those who can give them food or money.

Andres is a survivor. He collected plastic bottles and other junk to sell so that he would have money to buy food for the day. But it was never enough. One day, he did not get enough scrap. He took somebody's mobile phone at a market. He sold the phone and bought food. Andres, like most children, did not know if it was right or wrong. He was hungry. The police arrested Andres and charged the boy with theft. Was he a criminal?

The Philippine Congress, on two previous occasions, said he is not. But there are new voices who brand children as young as nine criminals.

They say children should be treated as criminals. They are persuading legislators to amend the law and to lower the minimum age of criminal liability of children from 15 years of age to nine.

Existing laws call for intervention for children in conflict with the law. The lowering of the age of criminal liability is detrimental to children.

A child in conflict with the law should undergo a community-based intervention program supervised by a social worker unless the best interest of the child requires him or her to be placed in a youth care facility that is under government monitoring.

Philippine law on criminal liability of children is benign, compassionate, and enlightened. It takes into consideration that a child, especially under the age of 15, has little schooling, lives on the streets, and is always hungry, cannot be held liable for crimes committed by adults.

The police are, however, complaining that children are being used by criminal gangs.

Supporters of such a position should present more evidence that children are indeed being used by criminal syndicates. Children do not understand that he or she is doing something wrong. The power and influence of an adult over children are strong. A child cannot act with free will and full knowledge if they are being coerced.

Adult drug traffickers are the criminals, not the small children. The children are innocent victims of abuse. Adult suspects ought to be arrested and charged with child abuse. The testimony of the child should be sufficient to convict an adult criminal who uses a child. A child can be taken care of and given protection and the law provides for that intervention.

That is putting the burden on law enforcers to apprehend and charge adults who use children and coerce them into participating in illegal acts. Tabloids have constantly played up the plight of street children who have to survive alone or in groups. The media present children as animal-like criminals, sometimes demonizing them.

But the desperate, hungry, and abandoned children are only trying to meet their needs to survive in a cruel neglectful society. They have been neglected, abused, oppressed and jailed. Some of the government's child-care facilities are in fact jails and the children there are in fact being punished. The government provides little or no education or assistance to the children. The cells are soon filled up with 9-year-olds who suffer physical and sexual abuse.

What an added disgrace to the Philippines to criminalize innocent children. When Jesus was asked who was the most important in the world, he placed a child before the crowd and said, "The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven is the one who humbles himself and becomes like this child. Whoever welcomes one such child as this welcomes me."

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.

Source: UCAN

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