Monday, February 26, 2024

Innocent No More

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In a shocking incident in Delhi, a teenager allegedly stabbed to death an 18-year-old on the street after which he started dancing on the spot. The crime has raised several questions on the crimes committed by minors and how the young are behaving in today’s fast-paced world

By Dr Swati Jindal Garg

It has been assessed that juvenile crime is not naturally born in a boy, but is largely due either to the spirit of adventure that is in him, to his own stupidity, or to his lack of discipline, according to the nature of the individual. This nature is built on several premises which include the experiences that were faced by the juvenile while growing up, the support system that he had and also to a large extent, the kind of person who mentored him. While it is true that juveniles are influenced by their family and environment, but in the end, it is they who chose to commit a crime out of variety of options. Luckily for society, not everyone resorts to crime because of their predicaments. There are many reasons like family environment, mental disorder, social disorganization, etc., because of which a teenager commits a crime and when he/she repeatedly commits a crime they become juvenile delinquents.

Juvenile delinquency, which is also more popularly known as criminal activity by children below the age of 18 years, is a topic of much discussion and incidents like the latest one involving the murder by a 16-year-old boy makes one recall many other heinous crimes that have been committed in the past by other juveniles. The Nirbhaya gangrape case that shook the nation in December 2012 tops the list.

The latest “Crime in India” report published by the National Crime Records Bureau for 2018 states that a total of 31,591 crimes committed by juveniles were reported in that year. Maharashtra alone accounted for 19% of these cases. Not far behind, Madhya Pradesh accounted for 16.6% of the crimes. Incidentally Madhya Pradesh reported the greatest number of such cases in 2017. Delhi with 8.6% of the cases was third in the list. The top 10 states together accounted for 81.7% of the cases in 2018.

The study also shows that a majority of the crimes committed by juveniles were offences affecting human body and property. This included hurt and grievous hurt (47%), rape (13%) and assault on women (12%), among many others.

Studies have shown that the most common reason behind juveniles committing crimes is their education followed by the kind of parenting that they get. According to Healy and Bronner, the major causes for juvenile crimes are “bad company, adolescent instability and impulses, early sex experience, mental conflicts, extreme social suggestibility, love of adventure, motion picture, school dissatisfaction, poor recreation, street life, vocational dissatisfaction, sudden impulse, and physical conditions of various kinds”. However, in India, it is poverty and the impact of the media, particularly social media, that encourages youths to engage in illegal activity.

The 2018 data reveals that almost 45% of the juveniles involved in these cases were educated between matriculation and higher secondary while about 28% had education up to primary level and 9% of them were illiterate. The studies also show that 99.3% of the juveniles involved in these cases were boys and around three-quarters of them were aged between 16 and 18 years. Shockingly, a total of 382 juveniles or about 1% of all were below 12 years of age. The past 15 years have witnessed an increase by about 65% in the number of crimes committed by juveniles, with the year 2016 topping the list. Thereafter, the number has decreased by 6% each year. 

Over a period of years, various studies have also identified various symptoms that define a child offender. These are:

  • A juvenile’s bodily structure is mostly healthy, and a healthy body is powerful and courageous.
  • Most juvenile offenders are usually restless, introverted and disruptive.
  • They can usually be characterised by unethical, highly emotional, egotistical and self-centred nature.
  • They are uncaring towards the repercussions of their acts.
  • Such offenders are more likely than other youngsters to have a psychotic condition.
  • They are easily irritated, disappointed and mostly melancholic.
  • They disobey norms, go against the power, break the law and have a tendency to be untrustworthy.
  • In a majority of cases, they are highly introverted and don’t talk to their relatives and families about their problems.

Apart from the Nirbhaya case, there have been many other shocking cases of juvenile crimes in India that have come to light and the fact remains that most of them remain undiscovered or even unreported.

In the year 2013, a gang of five minors had dramatically escaped from a city juvenile home amid riots and burning, and murdered a jeweller’s wife and decamped with 50 kg of silver jewellery and Rs 10 lakh in cash. In 2015, a shocking incident of two youths accused of rape after kidnapping an infant in Nangloi had come to light. Then, there was the December 2015 case wherein three borderline juvenile gunmen opened fire in a chamber at the Karkardooma Court complex in New Delhi, killing a police officer. This was followed by another case in 2016 wherein two juveniles allegedly shot an Uber driver in the Mundka area and fled with the car after dumping the body.

The law as it stands today states that the maximum sentence for juvenile offenders is three years and this sentence is applicable to both serious and minor offences. In case of an adult, the highest penalty that may be imposed is seven years in jail, life in prison, or death sentence. But all these heinous crimes raise several mind boggling questions—how is someone so young capable of murder? How can a young child cut off another child’s arms and legs? And how and why is it that he won’t go to prison at all?

Taking note of this discrepancy, it was argued in the Nirbhaya rape case that the accused’s age should not be used as a shield in the light of the heinousness of the cruelty he perpetrated on the victim. In this case, the accused was found to have physically tortured the woman with an iron rod, hurled obscenities at her and caused internal ruptures in her body. In the final decision, the juvenile was left free after completing his assigned term of imprisonment by the court. 

A PIL was then filed in the Delhi High Court, demanding amendments to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, 2000, to deal with “juveniles who have reached the age of 16 and commit significant crimes, have well-developed minds and do not require society’s care and protection. Rather, society requires care and protection against them”. 

Considering the increasing number of crimes that are being committed by juveniles against women, including sexual harassment, rape, acid attacks and violent killings, Section 18(3) of the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015 came into play which says that if the juvenile is found to have committed a heinous crime and is over the age of 16, a juvenile board—comprising a metropolitan magistrate or a judicial magistrate and two social workers—will have the discretion to decide whether the offender should be tried by courts of law like adults, or whether the offender should be tried as a juvenile. As per the law: “The board shall conduct a preliminary assessment with regard to his mental and physical capacity to commit such offence, ability to understand the consequences of the offence and the circumstances in which he allegedly committed the offence… for such an assessment, the board may take the assistance of experienced psychologists or psycho-social workers or other experts.”

However, a major loophole in this is that the boards could very well be pressured by the media trial that follows most of such cases and allow themselves to be influenced in determining which 17-year-old is child-like and which is adult-like. As a result, sending such delinquents aged between 16 and 18 years to adult prisons for seven years or more will likely ensure that there is little chance of their reformation.

There is no doubt that the purpose of juvenile law is to provide a structure where troubled kids can reform themselves and mature into better citizens. Even though the Indian legislature is working hard to improve the situation in India when it comes to juvenile crime and the laws that govern it, a lot still remains to be done. Although records show that juvenile crime has decreased in recent years, there are still several issues that must be addressed.

The government is taking steps to provide adequate education, good entertainment and proper homes for children and it cannot be denied that the journey towards addressing the actual root cause of juvenile delinquency has just begun. Juvenile crime prevention not only requires, but also necessitates active collaboration between all the key stakeholders—governmental agencies, educational institutions, law enforcement agencies, courts, social workers and non-profit groups. 

—The writer is an Advocate-on-Record practicing in the Supreme Court, Delhi High Court and all district courts and tribunals in Delhi

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