The juvenile delinquent does not feel his disturbed personality. The intelligent man does not feel his intelligence or the introvert his introversion.” - B F Skinner.
The data on the incidence of juvenile crimes is disturbing if statistics were the only criteria to measure juvenile delinquency in India. The figures from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) state that across the country, a total of 31,170 cases were registered against juveniles in 2021, showing a 4.7% increase over 2020 when 29,768 were registered. What is most disturbing is that a majority of them—76.2% or 28,539—were in the age group of 16 to 18 years. The crime rate among juveniles had also risen from 6.7% to 7.0%, as per the NCRB.
The figures are startling and cozy up to the argument that more adolescents are getting into conflict with the law. Last month, the Supreme Court expressed concern over the “rising rate of juvenile delinquency” in the country, adding that this “makes us wonder whether the (Juvenile Justice) Act, 2015 has subserved its object. We have started gathering an impression that the leniency with which juveniles are dealt with in the name of the goal of reformation is making them more and more emboldened in indulging in such heinous crimes.” The indictment is as severe against juveniles as against the State for failing to carve out an effective reform and rehabilitation policy for young offenders.
Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 allows children between 16 and 18 years reported to have committed heinous offences to be tried and sentenced as adults. The 2015 amendment had come against the backdrop of the outrage in the 2012 Nirbhaya case in which, out of the six accused, one was a minor and hence escaped the gallows.
The Centre for Child and the Law, National Law School of India University (CCL-NLSIU) and the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the National Institute of Mental Health & Neuro Sciences (DCAP-NIMHANS) had then issued a joint statement expressing their concerns about the amendment (to JJ Act), stating: “Adolescence is a transitional period—they cannot be treated on par with adults.” The experts explained that the adolescent brain undergoes “significant changes, especially in areas that are responsible for impulse control, response inhibition and decision making. This essentially means that juveniles may not fully understand the consequences of their actions or may not be able to resist impulses like adults. This psycho-social immaturity could further fail in heightened states of emotion and stress. Many of these children come from disadvantaged circumstances both economically and socially and often have undergone significant physical, sexual or emotional abuse themselves. These environmental factors could further impact brain development and its function.”
Almost a decade ago, a seminal study ‘Juvenile Crime - A Peep into Reality’ by Empowerment of Children and Human Rights Organisation (ECHO), Centre for Juvenile Justice, Bengaluru, in collaboration with UNICEF India and Department of Women & Child Development (DWCD), Karnataka, had stated that “Every child in conflict with the law is a child who would have been in need of care and protection at some point in time in their life.” The researchers added that physical maturity does not go hand in hand with cognitive maturity. “While someone may be old enough and physically mature to assault/aggress, do they really understand the consequences of what they are doing—not in a retrospective sense but at that point in time? … There is a need to understand the balance between the nature of a child’s/adolescent’s act and the nature of the circumstances from which the child comes.”
Why children get into a conflict with the law is a bigger and more serious question than to what extent they can go to violate the law and their victims. It is a fact that poverty is the biggest crime against humanity, and laws are heavily pitted against those who are poor and defenceless. The reality of street children is very different from those who have a roof over their heads and a surname to legitimise their existence. Substance abuse among street children is high and so is the correlation between crime and substance abuse.
A meeting with a group of young surrendered Naxalites in Chhattisgarh was an eye-opener to a child as a commodity, who is abused by the adult to achieve their goals. The youths who were picked up, fed on hatred against the State, and were trained in handling weapons like the AK47, machine guns, SLRs, etc. at vulnerable ages, is a story to be told. These young adults come from villages in ‘unsurveyed lands’. The small fragile hands that grew coarse from collecting water from the river, far from their humble dwellings, held guns for the extremists. These hands still rupture and bleed. The rate of conviction under Section 83 of the JJ Act for use of a child by non-state actors and militants/proscribed groups remains dismal.
Assertion of identity, albeit negative in the absence of positive stimulus and hope for the future, is one of the biggest reasons why young, vulnerable minds indulge in hardcore criminal activities. Teens taking to stone pelting and militancy post the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in 2016 in J&K is a disturbing example of an identity crisis among the youth. We need many more child and adolescent psychiatrists for better and fair evaluation, improved resources for skill training of school dropouts, re-integration with families, similar facilities in the absence of families, and better monitoring systems to prevent them from going back to crime.
To reform and rehabilitate, a juvenile delinquent needs empathy, patience and resources. It is not a simple task for the reason that children, other than ours—are neither “our” responsibility nor the government’s—because they are not a vote bank.
Children In Conflict with Law (CICL) have received lesser focus in research, monitoring and evaluation activities which examine the efficacy of the juvenile justice system that caters to the group. We all have a responsibility to ensure that a child in conflict with the law does not end up as an undertrial prisoner. Let’s stop looking the other way before it’s too late to return to the discourse.
Senior Special Correspondent, The New Indian Express, Bengaluru