A 20 feet by 20 feet room with an iron gate and a single window, a strikingly high ceiling, an LCD television and two mattresses have been his home for the last three years -- his ‘place of safety’ inside a reformation centre in the national Capital.
Convicted in the December 16, 2012 Delhi gang-rape case, the lone juvenile offender in the crime is now 21 and set to walk free on December 20 after the Delhi high court refused to stop the release despite demands by civil society groups and individuals to extend his stay at the detention centre, citing reports that a fellow-inmate had radicalised him.
But has he been reformed? Or picked up the vocational skills he had received training on at the centre? Are those enough to earn a livelihood for the rest of his life?
There are no clear answers as of yet. But officials and activists say that he must be given a chance though many agreed that India’s lacks a proper system for rehabilitating juvenile delinquents and that government support is not forthcoming.
“The unqualified assertion from many quarters that some young offenders are beyond redemption and cannot be reformed is used as a rationale to amend the law. We have to be very certain that our actions are based on facts not assumptions,” said Atiya Bose, director of Aangan, a Mumbai-based NGO which works with vulnerable children.
Officials said that the juvenile convict – who was kept isolated from 40-odd other inmates -- learned painting and cooking for more than a year and had even praised for his skills with the brush and colours.
For most part of his detention, the convict stayed inside his room and was allowed outside for two hours daily.
“If we think that these activities are making a mockery of rehabilitation, then it is the State that planned these activities that should be held to account, not the young offender,” Bose added.
Many people including Union minister Maneka Gandhi have advocated tougher laws which will enable prosecution of juveniles between 16 to 18 years as adults in case of heinous crimes like rape and murder.
But child rights experts argue that by making the law tougher without taking serious measures to reform juvenile offenders, the state is only abdicating its responsibility.
The reformation system
Most intervention programs provided for juveniles in detention facilities are believed to have fallen short on various counts. One of them is probation or after-care plan for juveniles who are out on bail or post their release from reform homes.
“…In practice, the probation unit working with Juvenile Justice Board is almost dead. No probation officer in any matter has come up with a rehabilitation plan of a child or has given insight to the board on the needs of any juvenile. The probation unit thus is not doing the work that the Acts expects from and requires it to do and is as such a complete disappointment,” principle magistrate Anuradha Shukla had observed in 2011 in a case.
Anant Asthana, lawyer and child rights activist said that “probation services continue to be abysmal, primarily due to non-availability of adequate number of probation officers and also because of lack of understanding on their role in juvenile justice system.”
A report put up for discussion at UNICEF India country office in July 2015 noted that not only the institutes meant for juvenile delinquents are overcrowded and under-staffed, these facilities also has negligible effect on their criminal behavior.
The report noted that due to lack of post-release care, the juveniles are at the risk of relapsing into criminal behavior.
Are prisons better?
In 2012, an RTI application had led to a survey in Tihar jail, leading to the discovery of 400 juveniles among the adult inmates. They have since been shifted to homes meant for juveniles in conflict with law.
Bharti Ali, co- director of HAQ centre for child rights that filed the RTI application, believes there are 1,500 probable juveniles still languishing in Tihar.
“In majority of the incidents of violence in reformation homes, those involved were boys who had come from Tihar, after being exposed to the worst possible treatment from other jail inmates as well as the jail authorities,” said Ali.
“Can we say with conviction that our over-crowded prisons have enough to offer by way of vocational training and skill development to reform its prisoners?” she added.
According to the Statistical Year Book of India, 2013, around 64% of juvenile delinquents belonged to families with an annual income of Rs 25,000 or less and 77.5% belonged to families with an annual income of Rs 50,000 or less. Only 0.09% of the total juvenile delinquents belonged to families whose annual income was in the ‘taxable’ slab.
“It is a question we must ask that whether expanding the purview of the Juvenile Justice Act is the solution to a safer society or a mere act of social elimination?” said Mrinal Sharma, project officer, prison reform programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.