Not child's play

Jan 15, 2013, 07:36 IST | Asha Mahadevan

A juvenile being accused of heinous acts in the Delhi gang rape case, has experts claiming that the increase in the crimes committed by juvenile delinquents can be tackled by lowering their legal age limit

December 2012, New Delhi: Six men rape a woman and severely beat up her male friend in a moving bus. One of the accused is a juvenile, who, according to the police, was instrumental in luring the victim, and was responsible for the more horrific injuries she suffered.

Child crime
Illustration/Amit Bandre

January, 2013, Mumbai: A 16-year-old boy and his fellow tuition classmate get into a fight when the latter warns the accused that he would bring his frequent absence from class to the notice of the instructor. The fight turns ugly and the accused allegedly strikes a fatal blow to his classmate’s chest.

Such incidents of juvenile crimes are not limited to India; it is a global problem (see box). While policymakers debate on how to halt this rise in juvenile crime, the incidents have once again sparked the debate on whether reducing the legal age of adult criminals from 18 to 15 or 16 years instead is a viable solution.

Afterall, the crimes that youngsters are nowadays accused of commiting are no longer juvenile they include rape and murder. But no discussion on juvenile delinquency can be complete without attempting to understand what compels youngsters today to commit serious crimes.

Cases for crime
Dr Zirak Marker, child and adult psychiatrist and psychotherapist, says, “There is no one factor that causes a child to commit a crime. Sometimes a child is born with certain genetic traits that make him or her genetically predisposed towards crime. Generally, the really serious, heinous crimes are committed by such individuals.

One juvenile was among the three accused of robbing a home in Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, in June 2011

The second factor is nurture - poor parenting, growing up amidst violence, severe trauma during childhood, lack of good role models, being verbally, physically or sexually abused or ragged and bullied etc - these situations may also contribute to psychological trauma and violent or deviant social behaviour in children.

A third factor is when a juvenile has a psychiatric disorder or an imbalance of neurochemicals in the brain, because of which the child may take to drugs or alcohol, leading to further degradation.” Agrees Swati Popat Vats, president, Podar Education Network, “Children who see violence in their environment then repeat it. If they are not corrected properly in time, it can lead to a merry-go-round, in which a child, who is punished for a misdeed, gets angry and to get back at the punisher, repeats it. He gets an even more severe punishment, which makes him angrier and he gets even more vindictive.”

Neha Patel
Neha Patel

Clinical psychologist Neha Patel who counsels several youngsters, insists, “Family dynamics have changed. There are many families where parents are working and the children are left on their own. They feel closer to their friends than to their parents. Peer pressure is very high and conforming to the group becomes so important to feel accepted that a lot of children just cross the line and start smoking, drinking and consuming drugs at a very early age.” Patel adds that there has been a diminishing of values.

Dr Anjana Thadhani
Dr Anjana Thadhani

“If the child is exposed to women being mistreated, abused and disrespected in their family, it could lead to the same attitude getting ingrained in him. They grow up believing that they can dominate over women and their ego gets a blow when a woman stands up against them. Another reason is that children are getting exposed to a lot of violence through the media, especially the crime-related shows that are the trend today.”

Dr Zirak Marker
Dr Zirak Marker. Pic/Datta Kumbhar

Vats agrees that the kind of media and entertainment children are exposed to today does affect them adversely. “The brain has a prefrontal cortex, the seat for logic, thinking and intelligence,” she says. “The activities a child is exposed to should stimulate this cortex but today’s activities don’t do so. They don’t make us think. So when a situation arises when a person has to think, we are unable to use the prefrontal cortex and end up using primitive brain responses that lack logic, and make us behave like animals.

Swati Popat Vats
Swati Popat Vats

Entertainment, with its dirty vulgar songs, only appeal to the primitive brain.” She cites the instance of the Delhi gang rape. “Six men were in it, and can it be that all of their consciences’ were gone at the same time? No. They had reached a level where they didn’t find anything wrong in what they were doing. They were governed by their basal instinct which rules the hunger for food and sex drive.”

Unaware or aware?
One of the arguments made by those who do not wish that the age limit for juvenile delinquents be lowered is that these youngsters are not aware of what they are doing. But experts shot that theory down. “Children even from the age of 6-10 years are capable of differentiating between right and wrong and understanding consequences,” says Dr Marker.

Agrees Vats, “This age limit is meant for crimes that are child-like. If a child lies or steals, there can be an excuse that he didn’t know it was wrong. But raping and killing are inexcusable. Even a six-year-old will know it is wrong. Those who commit such heinous crimes should be tried as adults.

Intelligence development in children is taking place much earlier nowadays due to exposure to technology, media and reading material. What an 18-year-old could do earlier, now a 12-year-old can do. I think that the age limit for juvenile delinquents must be lowered from 18 to 15 years.” Patel agrees, “18 is way too high. It should at the most be 16. There should be a rule that for a certain period after they are released, social workers see to it that they are rehabilitated smoothly into society.”

Reform and remand
Rehabilitation as well as reform is possible. Says Dr Marker, “It is possible to reform juvenile criminals with proper psychiatric treatment, medication, psychotherapy and counselling. It depends on each individual case.”

However, juvenile homes, or rather correctional facilities as they are officially called, may not be the perfect way to go about it. “The juvenile homes are not equipped to truly reform the inmate,” says Patel. “Not enough work is done to see to it that the inmates, when released, become law abiding citizens. The way they are treated by the authorities only hardens them.”

Agrees Dr Anjana Thadhani, consultant developmental paediatrician who has volunteered in juvenile homes, “Remand homes house two categories of children. The first are street children or orphans who are rounded up and sent by the Child Welfare Commission to these homes.

The second category are usually older children accused of petty crimes such as stealing mobile phones and chain snatching. Both the categories of children are housed together and there is no clear cut differentiation in the way they are treated. The older children influence the other kids into crime. Reform is possible if they are given good counselling and vocational training, thereby they use their time in the home effectively. Otherwise, they will simply end up being repeat offenders.”

Vats believes that while the wrong attitude of the officers in the correctional homes - wherein they humiliate the children and use bad language - towards the children makes the youngsters commit more crimes instead of reducing them, what is also needed is a proper medical examination of the incarcerated kids.

“It is also possible that children are committing a crime because of some defect in their brain chemistry. In such cases, just putting them in jail or correctional facilities won’t help. There should be tests conducted to find out if they have any such defect. There is a quote I believe in, ‘Every priest has a past, every sinner has a future’. Punish them for the crime and cure them for the future.”

Prevention is better
While reform has its advantages, the healthier option is prevention. “Young minds need to be constructively occupied,” says Dr Marker. Vats believes teachers and parents can do a lot to prevent youngsters from taking to crime. “Parents should know not to spank or humiliate their children for every little thing. But I really can’t blame parents since there is no course in parenting that they can study. Teachers, on the other hand, have studied child psychology in B Ed, but they are not implementing that in class.

They harden children’s emotions. Teachers have to change the way they look at emotional management and their methods of rectifying students’ behaviour.” Agrees Dr Thadhani, “Parents and teachers should pick up early signs - such as changes in the child’s behaviour - because then there is a greater chance that they can handle it better.” If we want children to pick up knives for cutting fruits and not stabbing their friends, then civil society and the law will have to work in a more concerted manner.

Global Issue

February UK 1993
Two 10-year-old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, lure two-year-old James Bulger, from a shopping arcade in Liverpool, take him to a railway track at Walton and torture him. They drop a 22lbs piece of steel track on his head and kill him. The two boys became the youngest killers in British history, beating Mary Bell, who in 1968, at the age of 11, killed two children, aged three and four. Thompson and Venables were tried as adults and served eight years for the crime. They were given new identities upon release

May Japan 1997
A 14-year-old boy in Kobe bludgeons a girl to death and two months later, beheads his 11-year-old friend. The case shocked the government to reduce the age limit from 16 to 14 years. He was given a new identity and released on bail after seven years in a rehabilitation centre.

March USA 1998
Mitchell Johnson (14) and Andrew Golden (12) go on a shooting spree at Westside Middle School, Arkansas, killing five and injuring 10. Both were tried as juveniles and imprisoned till they turned 21. Johnson was later arrested on other charges and imprisoned again.

June Japan 2004
An 11-year-old girl fatally stabs her classmate Satomi Mitarai (12) in an elementary school, since she was annoyed at the comments the latter had left about her on the internet. She served four years in prison.

February USA 2012
TJ Lane (17) is accused of killing three people and wounding three more at Chardon High School in Ohio. He will be tried as an adult in the ongoing trial.

August USA 2012
Two high school football players, aged 16, are accused of raping a 16-year-old girl after a party in Steubenville, Ohio. Fellow classmates shot videos and photographs of the incident and put them up on social networking websites. A video showing one student cracking jokes about the victim has sparked protests.

Go to top