Along with the recent rise in the number of crimes committed by juveniles in India, there has also been a rise in the shrill debates around it.
Post the Delhi gangrape two months ago, where one of the six accused is a juvenile who was the most brutal attacker of all, and the heated debate on what punishment should be meted out to him, the question on whether such children are criminals or victims themselves continues to be in the public domain.
What experts agree on, though, is that it’s a vicious cycle with no straight solutions or answers.
Reasons vary for juveniles getting into various forms of crime. Impulsive disorders, peer pressure, disturbed environment, broken family, aggression, lavish lifestyles and uncontrolled freedom from parents are some factors leading to a rise of this dangerous trend — which is not limited to India alone.
Add to this, newer problems of unrestrained access to technology and complex cyber space, and the problem is growing.
Says clinical psychologist Rajat Mitra who has been dealing with juvenile crime cases for close to 25 years now, “There are several multi-factorial reasons for the rise in the number of such cases in our country as well as abroad. Values are no longer absolute, but relative. Such kids exist in the grey zones.
"These days they are becoming adults quickly. There has been a neural overload on the kids’ brains and that’s why they aren’t able to integrate it well. That often escalates into anger, and their threshold is low.”
With the recent December 16 gangrape and other cases, several crimes committed by juveniles is increasingly in the news.
More than 30, 000 cases of juvenile crime are coming up every year, that is 1.1% of the total crime committed in the country, points out lawyer Anant Asthana, who works for juvenile justice.
Juvenile crime is on the rise due to extensive exposure, along with a number of distractions, including struggling with emotional upheavals in a modern and highly competitive world.
Says UNB Rao, founder chairman, Urivi Vikram Charitable Trust, which has been working since two decades to prevent juvenile crimes in India, “The maturity levels are going up. A 15-year-old of the modern world is seen as matured and informed as an adult aged 20-25 some 15 years ago. In such cases, mental growth and age don’t go hand in hand.”
Apart from the oft-repeated reasons, there are other factors like the role of genes — whether violence can be traced to bad genes, and where we are lagging behind in the role of society, parental responsibility and state measures.
According to the ministry of women and child development, two out of three children are abused in one form or the other.
Says psychiatrist Sandeep Govil who has been working with juvenile crime in Tihar jail, “It’s a vicious cycle, one factor propagating through the other.
"For example, harsh parenting, instability and violence in the family create an insecure environment for a child’s growth. Society should stop labelling and let individuals grow and overcome their weaknesses.
"The State has gone wrong in its inability to provide a secure environment for the person and his/her family socially, economically and culturally which leads to such cases.”
The big question remains, if violence can be traced to genes.
“The reasons responsible for the crime committed at such an age are a mix of factors like biology and environment. What we lack are ‘protective factors’ which help us dealing with negative influences even if it’s coming from one’s genes,” says Mitra.
If one has a ‘secure base’, which in psychology means care-givers who provide a safe base for the child to explore the world, things would be much better, he adds.
Our tendency to be lax, casual and the habit of putting everything under the carpet is the main barrier that needs to be addressed.
Says psychiatrist Sanjay Chugh, “Once we realise that this period is the foundation of adult anti-social behaviour, we’ll be able to control and prevent a lot of damage. Teenage is a critical time, when important cognitive impressions and concepts of morals, values, right or wrong are formed.
"It’s also the time when kids are curious. They try different things, derive stimulation from multiple sources, are willing to take risks and could thrive on being rebels.”
In today’s times, what seems to have changed is that people report juvenile crimes more often because there’s a growing concern over the issue.
“While more news, more noise about such issues can force people to take some preventive or corrective measures, it could also give ideas to others to indulge in similar acts, especially when they see that the offenders get away with it easily,” says Chugh.
The online impact
With youngsters becoming Internet savvy, juvenile cyber crimes are on the rise and misuse of Internet is becoming common.
At middle and high school levels, cyber crimes include digital piracy like stealing data, online bullying and harassment which includes threatening, blackmailing, and circulating sexually explicit messages/videos through text messages, MMS or e-mails, viewing online pornography, and computer hacking.
Technology, which adults can find complex, is swiftly used and misused by this age group which puts them in a grey area where there are no indicators of right or wrong.
The temptation is much more at the teenage level. Spending more time online for non-academic reasons, being highly trained with computers and having a computer or phone for their personal usage provides them with an opportunity to commit such crimes.
“The anonymity afforded by the Internet and computer technology, coupled with the relative ease and innocuous appearance of most online activities in public settings, may make cyber-deviance more attractive to some youths than real world offenses,” says a study titled Low Self-Control, Deviant Peer Associations and Juvenile Cyber-deviance, published by the journal Springer in 2011.
Says psycho-therapist Sameer Malhotra, “Young minds are vulnerable. They absorb whatever they see around quickly these days as their energy remains pent up and is not channelised properly. In some cases, I’ve seen that technology has had a negative role.
"These days kids are left to technology as there’s a lack of effective balanced parenting. The violent games they play and uncontrolled Net access fills them with similar patterns in terms of their behaviour and the want to implement it in their lives. With low tolerance levels, they get revengeful and can go to any extent considering the availability of means around them.”
Another problem, he adds, is that kids are hardly into outdoor games. “Less human contact results in less empathy and they aren’t able to build a balanced self.”
Being part of a society which is changing everyday, one needs to look at what we need in terms of a well-equipped society that also has to deal with such sensitive issues.
Says sociologist Amit Kumar Sharma, “We are facing a crisis of faith. When faith ruptures, crime happens. We are a part of a transitional society where modernity is taken in a wrong manner. Extension of social and family values is much needed. Their absence would lead to contradictory values, which leads to such crimes and behaviours.”
While there is a clamour for harsher laws for juvenile offenders, many say that our laws are strong enough and at the same time sensitive to the needs of the juvenile. What’s lacking is proper implementation.
“People are seeking lifetime imprisonment and death penalty. Will that really solve the problem?” asks Asthana. He adds that juveniles need reforms. Only 4.5% of the juvenile offenders are ‘repeat offenders’.
Education plays an important part in personality formation. So is there a need to make changes in the education provided to vulnerable juveniles?
“We don’t need to give them moral education. Ex-offenders should be asked to deal with fresh cases as they would better understand the mindset and it would lead to evidence-based training. We tried this in some cases and it helped,” adds Mitra.
Our system is lagging behind if we look at the international scenario in terms of juvenile crime.
Adds Mitra, “I have been approached by institutions from some countries for help at every stage for such cases. Its disappointing that I haven’t received a single call in my country to be involved in such sensitive cases.”
The other question is how much responsibility can a child take for substance abuse.
“A kid can be responsible provided she/he receives guidance and nurturing in her/his weaker moments. Substance abuse is again an impulsive decision and may be due to the child’s tendency to experiment with the new and unknown,” says Rao.