It's been four years since the gangrape (and the eventual death) of the New Delhi paramedical student. Juvenile justice laws in India have garnered considerable scrutiny ever since, given that one of the accused was a juvenile. He was given a lenient sentence of spending three years in a juvenile home, due to his young age. The sentence also required him to be under the watch of a child welfare officer for two more years, and quarterly reports on his reformation had to be sent to the Juvenile Justice Board. However, due to the variety of heinous acts committed by him in the crime, the judiciary’s clement decision was not met favourably by the public, who demanded for him to be sent to prison. Following the aftermath of this decision, reforms were made in the Juvenile Justice Act of 2000, and as of January 2016, the age for trying juveniles was reduced to 16. Further, individuals between ages 16-18 could be tried as adults for heinous crimes, depending upon the decision by the Juvenile Justice Board (The Juvenile Justice Act, 2015).
The judiciary may have been compelled to provide such a judgment due to the public backlash at the early release of the juvenile offender, and the demand of severe retribution for him. However, various child rights cohorts still hold strong opinions against such treatment of juvenile offenders, considering it to be an infringement of their rights. Incidences of minors being involved in committing sexual and violent crimes in India have increased considerably over the past few years. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data has consistently reported a rise in annual numbers of juvenile crimes and in the number of perpetrators apprehended under the IPC (Figure 1).
Although it is imperative to find a proper solution to their legal detainment issues, it is also essential to understand the psycho-social causes of the upsurge in such felonies. Some studies have identified higher violent tendencies of juveniles, and potential underlying factors need to be analysed in depth; the root of the problem needs to be dealt with rather than focusing only on the punishment aspect of it.
Individuals at the inception of their teenage years are more impressionable and potentially more violent because of imitating violent entities in their environment. A strong relationship prevails between sensation-seeking and positive and negative risk-taking among adolescents. Further, they have lower control over their impulses. Lower family income may instigate them to get things they cannot afford, by any means possible, and violent tendencies may surface due to their unfulfilled needs. If they have been victims of trafficking, they may be compelled to resort to violent means due to the fear of being abused themselves. In a case like this, individuals need to be treated with care and understanding, rather than demanding extreme punishments for them.
Although it is seemingly an easy option to treat juveniles, between ages 16 and 18, as adults in case of heinous crimes, there are many complexities involved in that decision. For instance, how does one treat someone who is almost 16 and has committed a crime deemed ‘adult’ in nature, but has not surpassed that age? Even in such a case, it can be argued that the person is mature enough to have committed the crime and understand its repercussions, and can be tried as an adult. However, the law would not permit that, thereby resulting in unintended discrimination. Further, there have been instances of minors as young as 13 years of age, committing acts such as raping of other minors, abduction and rape, and burning of animals. The NCRB compendium of 2016 reported that 27 percent of juvenile crime in 2015 was committed by individuals between ages 12-16, whereas 1.4 percent was committed by those in age group 7-12 (see Figure 2).
Considering that almost 30 percent of juvenile crime incidences pertain individuals below 16 years of age, the question arises of how the judiciary should treat incidences like these.
In accordance with the current law, juvenile delinquents who are convicted are sent to remand homes, where they spend some time (up to three years) in custodial treatment, and are released thereafter. This rehabilitation period may not be enough in cases of crimes like rape and murder as general recidivism may be likely in such cases. Secondly, if individuals as young as 13 are committing offences under someone else’s influence, putting them in remand homes with other teenagers who can easily influence them may not be the best idea and would also risk recidivism. Studies have indicated that juveniles may partake in crime in order to merely ‘belong’ to a place, which is a gang in most cases. In some instances, they might be peer-pressured to undertake antisocial activities so as to prove their ‘loyalty.’ Many such groups influence impressionable youngsters into committing unlawful actions by convincing them that they have nothing to fear. Some individuals, who don’t understand the implications of their actions easily get lured into exhibiting belligerent behaviours, just to fit in. Others knowingly indulge in anti-social activities, as they are aware of juvenile laws, thereby being unfearful of dire consequences. Therefore, decisions of their rehabilitation need to be taken with caution. Further, housing juvenile offenders along with hardened criminals in prisons always risks aggravation of their anti-social tendencies.
Juveniles may indulge in crime for financial reasons, social reasons, or merely for the thrill of anti-social behaviour. Some such perpetrators often have tiffs with their immediate families, which may in themselves act as triggers for their anti-social actions. Many face overt control or extreme familial neglect and consequently seek approval and solace elsewhere. Other times the families themselves are involved in anti-social activities and youngsters get dragged into them. Juvenile rehabilitation is heavily focused on getting them back to their families. However, considering that their problems may stem from the families themselves, policy makers need to consider stronger alternatives for their living arrangements in the post-rehabilitation period. This may include providing them with a more secure environment to work in, which would supplement the financial support received by them upon release.
Despite the government’s attempts to remand the juvenile population, many challenges still persist. The staff and the nurses at juvenile homes often mistreat them, thereby potentially reducing the effects of rehabilitation and treatment. Further, they lack proper means for pursuing interests and hobbies, thereby instigating truant behaviour such as running away from the remand home to watch movies or undertake gang activities. This creates a vicious circle which needs to be broken.
Policies would benefit from focusing on three aspects of juvenile delinquency. First, to identify the causes of increased incidences of transgressions, with increasing focus on the trend of violent crimes. Such an identification of causes should be followed up with educating juveniles about informed decision-making and helping them understand repercussions of indulging in the said causes. If their families or peers are responsible for their issues, then steps need to be taken to move such individuals to ‘safe places’ and provide them with more conducive environments. Second, juvenile remand homes need to be under stricter surveillance so as to control for internal abuse of inhabitants. Last, policy-makers need to introduce research-based measures to assess the risk of recidivism, and base sentencing on such measures, thereby controlling loopholes in juvenile laws with respect to the age factor. Only if these aspects are achieved will the Indian judiciary be able to find a middle ground for rehabilitation of juvenile offenders, and to an extent, policy makers would be able to prevent occurrences of juvenile offences.
(The author is a senior research assistant at the Department of Psychology, Monk Prayogshala. Monk Prayogshala is a not-for-profit academic research organisation based in Mumbai that works in the social sciences.)