Blessing the beasts — not the children
CTALK - Cito Beltran (The Philippine Star) - January 23, 2019 - 12:00am

The proposed amendment to the Juvenile Justice Law to lower criminal liability from 15 years down to nine years old is stupid. Stupid because the premise of lawmakers is that criminal syndicates are using minors to commit crimes because they cannot be legally prosecuted. The legislative solution they propose is to throw arrested nine-year-olds into lock up or detention. Members of Congress are proposing that we punish the minors who are the victims, for the sins of criminal syndicates the same way we arrest and charge prostitutes and women who are victims of human trafficking but never really catch pimps and criminals engaged in kidnapping and white slavery! The amendment will put kids behind bars or so-called processing centers where we don’t see or hear from them. Do we now put them in jails the same way we keep un-trainable dogs in cages? Why not hang a couple of those syndicate members in the middle of EDSA instead, then lets see if they still mess with kids!

Legislators and the Executive department will argue that the kids won’t be thrown in jail but will be sent to “Bahay Pag-asa” or the government’s many shelters of hope as mandated by law. I recently learned from my guests on AGENDA (Cignal TV8) that these shelters are often worse than city jails, so unfit for children to the point that many dog houses in exclusive villages have better sanitation, ventilation and upkeep. Contrary to public notions, minors are often dumped into one area, meaning “rugby boys” end up with drug runners, snatchers, runaways, child-abuse victims, victims of sexual abuse or human trafficking. The construction or establishment of these Bahay Pag-asa are left to the discretion or sense of priority of local government officials, so if the town or city is poor or run by some heartless profit oriented Governor or Mayor, chances are the children will live much the same way adult criminals do.

What shocks me is that no one would dare call out the fact that passing such a law is an admission that we as a society have failed to properly raise and protect the next generation to be responsible law abiding citizens with a sense of accountability and fear of the law. Lowering the age of criminal liability down to nine years old is the wrong answer for the wrong problem. Let offenders be accountable for breaking the law but let us also hold government officials, politicians and parents, or all of us for that matter, accountable for the breakdown. Jail time is a quick fix with long-term damage unless by some miracle the government can quickly come up with “correctional facilities” that really help offenders redeem themselves, instead of corrupting themselves further through exposure and confinement with hardened criminals. Juvenile justice is all about what is in the child’s best interest and not lazy-ass instant noodle legislative solutions. Ironically, one panelist said that the Bahay Pag-asa in Davao City, hometown of President Duterte, is actually one of the few good examples in the country.

What’s interesting is that legislators and people in Malacañang cite or talk about are so-called statistics that are actually generalizations void of any serious analysis. They talk about “many” criminal syndicates using minors, but NGOs and lawyers involved in juvenile protection and intervention told me in our show AGENDA (Cignal TV-8) that minors often talk about poverty, hunger, desperation as the things that pushed them into stealing or using drugs. Based on actual PNP data: Minors commit 2% of crimes while adults account for 98%. Of the crimes committed by minors only 8% are categorized as serious crimes: murder, drugs, assault, rape, homicide etc., while 92% of crimes committed by minors are generally petty or non-serious crimes.

It is also worth pointing out that the data do not reflect any attempt to sort or flesh out the crime incidence if the minors were forced, manipulated or voluntarily committed or participated in the said crimes. Such statistics also fail to establish if there were special circumstances that forced the minors to commit the crimes such as poverty, hunger, medical emergency, etc. As the panelists all agreed on: the burden of proof is upon the legislators and the current administration to produce real scientific evidence and data regarding crime incidence among the youth, and how lowering the age of legal liability will solve “the problem” whichever it may be.

Why is everyone talking about punishment but no longer talking about whose job it is to make sure our system is working, beginning with schools, homes, barangays, juvenile detention centers and who are the people that failed to catch the kids that fell into the cracks of our very broken system.  Do we actually still have such a system dedicated to address truancy, juvenile misconduct as well as child protection? In our eagerness to embrace liberal modernism we threw out or outlawed the use of the rod to discipline the child. Consequently we now start to reap the whirlwind but don’t have the safety nets.

Jose Rizal is often quoted saying: “The hope of the Motherland is the youth.” If we still hold that to be true, then perhaps what we need to do is to take that statement seriously, enough to establish the Department of Children’s Welfare. Raise our level of interest, concern and investment to a point that it is not merely lip service or performance points for Congressmen needing to show something in terms of legislative accomplishments. Stop making children’s centers optional and put someone in charge of children’s welfare with the rank of Cabinet! If we can put money on urban management via the MMDA and are currently trying to establish the Department for Disaster Resiliency, why can’t we put up a department dedicated to protecting the rights, welfare and the future of all Filipino children? Lowering the age to nine years old will simply have an inflationary effect on crime statistics and increase the numbers of “criminals.” Is someone planning to use these stats to solicit more money to spend? Bless the children... not the beasts.

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