Saturday 15 Jun 2024

A juvenile tangle

December’s gang-rape in New Delhi drew attention to India’s rising juvenile crime rates. But experts fear stiffening punishment will make matters worse

Jason Overdorf | Global Post / For The Goan | FEBRUARY 02, 2013, 10:44 AM IST

With his teenager's wispy mustache and a mullet, 19 year-oldMuhammed may seem guilty of failing to keep up with current style, but you’dnever guess he’s a convicted murder. “Three of us were out of our minds onsmack,” he said of his crime of two years ago. “We saw a guy walking down theroad who looked like he had a little cash, so we tried to snatch his mobile andwallet. He fought back, so we stabbed him. We thought he'd be able to identifyus to the police if we left him alive.”

Poor, addicted to drugs, and living on the street, Muhammad(not his real name) exemplified a disturbing dark side of India's so-calleddemographic dividend — an increasingly youthful population economists predictwill help this country surpass China as the world's manufacturing hub by 2020.Although the economic boom is making more people rich, rising inequality, pooreducation and persistent unemployment have helped prompt a spike in juvenilecrime.

But Muhammed is lucky. Since he was 17 at the time of hiscrime, the maximum sentence he faced was a three-year stint in a so-calledobservation home. He served his time in a progressive pilot program thatfocuses on de-addiction and rehabilitation. Less than two years later, he’sfree and eager to put his life back together thanks to his rare chance from India'sgenerally troubled juvenile justice system. But such breaks may become evenrarer, thanks to a furious campaign now underway to allow Indian courts to tryyoung offenders as adults.

In what may prove to be a landmark case, the Supreme Courtadmitted a plea arguing that the mental age — based on a bone-ossification test— rather than physical age of the juvenile suspect in December’s Delhi gangrape case should be used to determine whether or not to try him as an adult.That contravenes the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child,which sets the age at 18. India's women and child development minister hasspoken out against lowering the bar. But newspapers, television channels andtough-talking politicians continue to demand a crackdown on juvenile offenderseven as experts insist the juvenile system is already broken and brutal.

Sociologists argue that reducing the threshold age to 16wouldn’t lower juvenile crime rates. They say it would deny thousands of youngoffenders a chance at rehabilitation instead — and exacerbate age-oldprejudices and new fears resulting from rapid social change by targeting pooryouths.

Bharti Ali of the Haq Center for Child Rights blames therise in juvenile crime rates on government policies he says are promptingcycles of poverty. “The government education system has failed, so children runaway from the schools. There's a lot of domestic violence, so children leavehome or they kill their fathers,” he says.

Experts point to the United States as a warning case. Nineout of 10 juveniles who run afoul of the law worldwide never commit anothercrime, according to an International Save the Children Alliance report.However, in America — where more juveniles are tried as adults than in anyother country — research by the Justice Department shows stricter punishmentfails to deter youth crime in general or reduce the likelihood that juvenilessentenced as adults will commit crimes in the future.

That’s something 19-year-old Muhammad doesn’t question. “IfI'd been sent to jail,” he says, “I'd have come out worse than when I went in.”

Share this