Understanding Juvenile Crime

There is increasing clamour to lower the age for juvenile-accused and demands to try them as adults in the court of law. Based on fieldwork in juvenile homes in Delhi, this article highlights the lack of awareness about the juvenile justice system among inmates of juvenile homes. Changing the law may be an important step but there should be more emphasis on educating juvenile offenders about their legal rights.
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Let me begin this essay on juvenile crime with a personal experience with juveniles, potentially delinquents. Recently, I was walking in a relatively secluded area of Delhi in broad daylight, when I heard a sound from a fast approaching motorbike from behind. Within a fraction of a second, I felt an inappropriate physical gesture. And within a fraction of the next second, I realised that this was by one of the three fancily dressed slum kids who zoomed past me. I felt anger and helplessness and reported the motorbike number, or whatever I could remember of it, to a nearby police chowki. That is the most I was capable or willing to do due to a recovering ankle problem. The plight of residents, who might have faced such violence frequently, came to my mind after this personal experience. This must stop. If juvenile crime needs to be addressed effectively, it must first be studied effectively.

The discourse on juvenile crime in the Indian policy realm is more focused on an ex post facto approach of tweaking the law to make it more stringent in case of juveniles accused of heinous crimes (the Indian Parliament recently passed an amendment to this effect). Such a law, though seemingly desirable from a “justice be served” point of view, might fail to act as a deterrent in the long term if not complemented by more focus on two things. First, the ex ante approach of considering the socio-economic circumstances of juvenile offenders who themselves are victims. Most of them are vulnerable to “bad influence” by virtue of their lack of access to schooling, unregulated access to alcohol, child labour, low income parents and so on. Second, we need to ensure efficacious rehabilitation by spending more on infrastructure such as sports facilities, local libraries and special training programmes.

Interacting with Juveniles

To be more specific, some of the observations from my interaction with juvenile delinquents in Delhi indicated:

(i) A juvenile, especially a socio-economically ill-equipped one, may place low value on her future than her adult and/or socio-economically well-equipped juvenile counterpart due to lack of experience and bleak prospects respectively (most of the offenders in my sample so far belong to poor and less educated parents practising unskilled labour).

(ii) Most crimes involving juvenile offenders take place in groups comprising other juveniles and/or adults. Their actions may not be a case of individual decision-making. Children end up doing what they observe, and even if they can exercise individual judgment, they may feel overpowered by group action. It is more likely that those who are socio-economically underprivileged will fall under “bad adult influence” at work or elsewhere (a major part of my sample up till now comprises dropouts who are working in the informal sector). The fact that kids emulate adults is well established in research on child behaviour.

(iii) Moreover, several respondents informed that they were under the influence of alcohol while committing crime even though the legal age for consuming alcohol is 25 years in Delhi. Alcohol is scientifically known to lower inhibition and impair one’s judgment (which may incline one to take risks more than they would otherwise). They also seem to be in possession of, or have easy access to, weapons such as sharp knives and rods.

(iv) Most of these children have no access to rejuvenation activities of the kind that the relatively better off take for granted—sports facilities, healthy study environment, quality of teaching and level of motivation (as well as conduct of teachers since they mostly study in woefully funded government schools), counselling centres at school for guidance regarding future career options or for reformatory help if required, access to coaching centres or tuitions to compete in entrance examinations (financial hardship), guidance for future (due to parents’ lack of awareness), parties or get-togethers in the notice of parents.

(v) Majority of them reside in slums and other areas in the outskirts of Delhi, which clearly have minimal police presence. From an econometric analysis by using National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) panel data of 13 states for five years, it was found that a higher presence of police personnel in a particular area leads to a statistically significant reduction in juvenile crime. This only amplifies the “Broken Windows” theory which basically says that visible disorder/violence begets more violence.

(vi) A number of cases against juveniles seem false, and are an indication of the corruption prevalent in the police force, and the indifference of the public prosecutor, along with that of the judge. Most of the accused said they do not get a chance to defend or communicate their position to the police or lawyers. Besides the police intimidate them.

The following excerpts from my interactions buttress these points:

Admitted Guilt

“Maine murder kar dia madam. Pee hui thee. Sab saath the. Kucch baat hui thee. Bata nahi sakta. Gusse mein tha. Aapa kho dia. Yahan bohot aise hain jinhone kucch bhi nahi kia. Phir bhi phanse huye hain.” (“I murdered someone. I was drunk. All of us were together. There were a few unsorted issues but I will not be able to share the details. I got very angry and lost control. Lot of them here (in the juvenile home) are innocent. Yet they are here.”)

“Dost the. Mujhse bade. Ab Tihar mein hain. Pee rahe the hum sab. Koi baat hui. Sab apna aapko kho baithe. Khatam kar dia apne hee dost ko. Sharab buri cheez hai. Insaan koh janwar bana deti hai.” (“They were my friends, slightly older to me. We were drinking. Some issue arose. Everyone lost control and attacked each other. Alcohol is a bad thing. It turns human beings into animals.”)

“Party kar rahe the. Kucch baat hui. Maar peet aur phir murder ho gaya nashe mein.” (“We were partying. Something happened. We fought. Then I killed under the influence of alcohol.”)

“IPhone 6 chahiye tha. Kidnap kia. Marna nahi chahta tha. Pee hui thee. Bas ho gaya.” (“I wanted an IPhone6. I kidnapped someone but had no intention of killing that person. I came under the influence of alcohol.”)

“Juvenile ke maze le raha hoon madam. Isliye phir se murder kar dia. Pehli baar toh pee hui thee isliye ho gaya. Doosri baar toh yahan kee hawa khan eke baad kia. Athara ke baad Tihar bhej detein hain” (I am enjoying my time at the juvenile home. I know I won’t be convicted here, so what’s the harm in murdering someone. The first time I murdered someone I was drunk. However by the next time I think I was influenced by the environment at the juvenile home. They send you to Tihar jail when you are 18 years.”)

Claimed False by Delinquents

“Mere agle din exam tha. Cycle se doodh lene ja raha tha. Raste mein kucch shor sharaba ho raha tha. Woh dekhne ruka hee tha ki do police wale aye aur le gaye. Bola tune chori kyun kia. Maine mana kia par nahi mane. Ma baap thane aye toh paise mangne lage. Wo kahan se laate? Agle din court le gaye. Kaha maan loge toh jaldi chhudwa denge.Tab se yahin hoon. Gyarwi phir se deni padegi chhotne ke baad.” (“I had an exam the next day. I was going to get milk on the bicycle when I noticed a crowd on the way. When I stopped to watch, policemen came and accused me of theft. I denied but they did not listen. When parents reached the police station, they asked for money. Where could they get it from? They took me to the court the next day. They told me I will be freed early if I confessed. I am here since then. I will have to repeat Class XI once I get out.”)

“Bahut maara madam. Koi brigadier ne pitwaya. Kaha phone kyun liya. Maine kaha mere dost ne dia. Thaane mein daal diya. Ma ke paas phone nahi hai. Uska pata dia tha lekin mil nahi rahi hai. Ek maheena ho gaya hai.” (“Some Brigadier got me beaten up. They accused me of stealing his phone. I told them my friend gave it to me. They put me behind bars. My mother does not have a phone. I gave them her address but they cannot find her. It has been a month.”)

“Hum teenon ko murder mein andar kar dia. Hum toh school se wapas aa rahe the. Shor sharaba dekhne ruke toh pakad ke le gaye. Raat koh policewalon ne peeke bohot peeta. Maa baap se kaha paise laoge toh chhodenge. Do maheene se yahin hain…kucch bata sakengi kab chhootenge…chhootenge bhi ya nahi?” (“The cops have put all three of us here for murder. We were only coming back from school. A crowd caught our attention. Police caught us. Later in the night, they beat us up when they were drunk. They have asked my parents for money. I have been here for two months. Could you tell us when we will be freed? Will we be freed at all?”)

Conclusions

A very crucial point that I must draw attention to, is the fact that except one recidivism case, not a single juvenile knew of the relatively lenient juvenile justice system. They are aware of Tihar. But they are not aware of the provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act. They did not expect to get away easy upon committing crime. This flies in the face of those who advocate lowering of age as a deterrent of heinous juvenile crime.1 If juveniles do not know the legal system, how can solely and simply changing the system have a desired impact? The key to this is awareness. Decision-making can be a proposition when the juvenile-accused are informed and more importantly, if the person in question is rational. It is difficult to see children who grow up in deplorable living conditions, are prone to alcohol and the company of habitual drunkards and criminal adults, taking rational decisions.

Note

1 I have not spoken to a rape accused yet. I have spoken to a kid charged of sodomising a friend, who also did not know of the juvenile justice system but knew of Tihar jail, and knows it was “wrong doing.”

Originally published in EPW

Disclaimer:The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IIT Delhi is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information on this article. The information, facts or opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of IIT Delhi and IIT Delhi does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.