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Homes or hell holes: hard questions after a chilling juvenile double murder

Parth MN | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:35 IST

The crime

  • A 16 year old convict allegedly murdered a woman, 3 months after his release from a juvenile home
  • Has juvenile justice system been successful in rehabilitating young convicts? Catch visits a juvenile home in Mumbai

The conditions

  • The juvenile home was in a pathetic state, with inadequate staff and resources
  • Norms for the segregation of inmates based on age and crime weren\'t being followed

More in the story

  • The experience of a 16-year old inmate
  • Are juvenile homes in a position to bring about a positive change?
  • Can the new juvenile justice law make a difference?
A 17-year-old boy -- a juvenile -- has been arrested in Faridabad for allegedly murdering a 65-year-old woman.

According to the police, quoted in a story by NDTV, the juvenile strangled the woman in her South Delhi home and fled with cash, jewelry and mobile phones.

The boy has supposedly told the police he is a professional dancer and killed the woman Mithlesh Jain for money to participate in a dance reality show.

The shocking twist is, this juvenile had allegedly killed a 13-year-old boy in September, just a few months ago, and been sent to a rehabilitation home.

He was released in November for "good behaviour". Barely 3 months later, he has allegedly committed another murder.

A 17-year-old murder convict allegedly committed another murder 3 months after his release

This case brings the spotlight back on the hotly debated issue of juvenile crime -- the circumstance that drives them, the conditions of the juvenile homes juveniles are incarcerated in, and the legislative framework around the phenomenon.

Under the new Juvenile Justice Act, if the Juvenile Justice Board agrees, this 17-year old will be tried as an adult . But that raises many ancillary issues.

If indeed this boy is guilty of murdering the woman, it would raise a number of questions: How effective are these juvenile observation homes? On what basis does the observation release a juvenile ahead of the completion of his term? How is it decided whether a juvenile convict has genuinely been "reformed"? And what rehabilitative atmosphere do these homes provide juveniles?

A visit to one such juvenile home in Mumbai revealed the pathetic conditions juvenile convicts live in. Some say these homes end up criminalising these juveniles, instead of reforming them.

Juvenile homes are part of the problem

Bare mattresses lie on the floor. Ventilation is tardy with windows opening only from one side. The rectangular dorm-room is shared by 30 boys aged between 12-18 years.

If convicted of a serious crime by Juvenile Justice Board, this dorm-room in Mumbai's juvenile observation home awaits the juvenile for a maximum period of 3 years, for the aim is to rehabilitate, not punish him.

Towards the end of 2015, India's lawmakers amended the Juvenile Justice Bill and gave discretionary powers to the Juvenile Justice Board to sentence 16-year-olds to adult prisons in certain heinous crimes.

The new law gives Juvenile Justice Board the discretion to ask for a juvenile to be tried as an adult

The amendment came on the back of an uproar in India after the juvenile convicted in the horrific gang rape of 2012 walked free after serving his three years in prison.

Activists have long criticised the conditions in India's juvenile homes. They say that the new law bypasses the pertinent questions regarding the failures of the system that is supposed to rehabilitate underage offenders.

Former Deputy Commissioner of Police, Maharashtra, Shirish Inamdar, who also headed the Juvenile Aid Police Unit in Mumbai, described the state of affairs in observation homes as "pathetic" with "inadequate government staff merely working for salary". He said the juvenile rehabilitative system "contributes to the criminalisation of juveniles" because the observation homes are "merely keeping them alive, instead of rehabilitating them ethically and morally".

"The manner in which the underage inmates are treated in the observation homes develops certain hatred in them towards the society and establishment, instilling rebellion," he said. "We are breeding them as potential big-time criminals."

Santosh Shinde, child rights activist, believes the amendment was a "knee-jerk reaction" and an "easy way out" to "appease public sentiment and media". "A constructive way forward is to create a system that discourages juveniles from committing heinous crimes," he said.

Most juvenile offenders reside in slums and are hardly literate. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), of the total juvenile offenders in India in 2014, 55.6% belonged to families with annual income of less than Rs 25,000, and around 53% were either illiterate or educated only up to Class 5. The NCRB noted the number of juvenile offenders in the country increased from 36,822 in 2012 to 48,230 in 2014. In 2013, the highest increase in juvenile crimes was seen under sexual assaults on women.

The Juvenile Justice Act of India mandates the segregation of juveniles in the observation home based on age (12-16 years and 16-18 years), sex and crime. At Mumbai's observation home in Dongri, one of the oldest in India, a 16-year old inmate's account indicates they have all been clubbed together irrespective of age and gravity of the crime. The segregation process takes place only before going to bed.

The new law

After the 2012 gang rape, the government appointed a committee, which deemed unnecessary to treat children as adults given the juvenile system recognised that 16-18 years is "an extremely sensitive and critical age".

After being accused of a crime, a juvenile is produced in front of a probation officer in a mildly lit office amidst the campus of the juvenile observation home in Mumbai. The look on the juvenile's face resembles a puppy lost in wilderness, trying desperately to comprehend the consequences of his actions, intimidated to even utter a word. The probation officer asks completely unrelated questions ranging from his favorite colour to the lunch menu, before the juvenile gathers his voice and explains his side of the story. The parents of the juvenile apologetically look on with a lump in their throat.

The 16-year old has been in the observation home for around two weeks for sexually assaulting a six-year old. Clad in a sullied navy blue shirt and shorts, the inmate barely makes an eye contact. But when he does, the trepidation is palpable. "My uncle beat up my mother black and blue over a property matter. He stoned my father and used foul language," he discloses. "Then he got me in for assaulting his daughter."

The inquiry is pending and the 16-year old does not confide about his crime. Had it happened before the amendment became a law, he may well have been tried as an adult.

Opposing the amendment in Lok Sabha, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor had said, "The focus should be on properly implementing the existing provisions instead of shrugging off responsibility by holding the children responsible for the failures of the juvenile rehabilitative system."

Life of a young convict

During his stay at the observation home, the 16-year old has not yet attended a single counseling session, also mandated by the Juvenile Justice Act. He wakes up at 6 am and most of his day goes in attending tailoring classes and playing carom.

16-year-old convict at an observation in Mumbai hasn't attended a single counseling session

Anand Nadkarni, Director, Institute for Psychological Health in Mumbai, said psychological assistance is the "most pivotal part of rehabilitating the juvenile". "The homes have a visiting psychiatrist doling out medication without any customisation for individual needs. It isolates children the same way adults are in a normal prison," he said.

There is not much scope for an outdoor activity either in the observation home given its high compound walls. A few 2 storied buildings, allotted to the officials and inmates, dot the campus, through which the kids negotiate within the purview of the authorities. There are rules to be followed inside an observation home. "If you do not follow their orders, if the floor alongside the bed is unclean, the juveniles are slapped," says the 16-year old cautiously, looking around if anyone's listening.

"I have not slept properly for the last few days. I miss my home," he says.

Authorities and caretakers say that they have to resort to hard measures because of the violent behaviour on the part of the juveniles.

"When you do not create an amiable atmosphere, the kids are going to express themselves in an inappropriate manner," said Shinde.

For every juvenile, the authorities get Rs 750 per month from the state government, said the probation officer, requesting anonymity. "How can we feed and tend to the kids with such a miniscule an amount?" he asked.

The juvenile justice infrastructure is looked at as a burden, said Nadkarni, which is an "attitudinal fault on the part of the administration and society".

On the other side of the two-storied building for male inmates, lies a secluded section for girls. A narrow lane through the campus leads to the section, which is well guarded at regular intervals. At the time of the visit, all the girls present had been admitted under the "care and observation" category, which essentially deals with victims, as opposed to "conflict with law" which refers to perpetrators. However, there is no infrastructural provision to separate the girls under "conflict with law" from the "care and observation" category in case a situational requirement arises.

Girls who are victims of heinous crimes are made to live along with female juvenile convicts

Despite being located in the heart of India's financial capital, the observation home here lacks basic necessities. As one travels further from the spotlight, the situation gets even worse.

The Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) published a report in 2013, which described the juvenile homes as India's "hell holes", where inmates are "subjected to sexual assault and exploitation, torture and ill-treatment, apart from being forced to live in inhuman conditions." In 2013, 42 inmates escaped from a juvenile home in Uttar Pradesh, complaining repeated sexual abuse by older youths in the home. The segregation process as per age appeared to have been profoundly neglected.

The director of ACHR, Suhas Chakma, said the juvenile is more criminalised in India's observation homes, because the children are "effectively looking after themselves with inadequate staff and no inspections".

When the Bill was tabled for discussion in the Lok Sabha in May 2015, Tharoor described it as "regressive" and said it was a "black day in terms of modern jurisprudence". "Our justice should be about rehabilitation not retribution," he had said.

While the lawyer of the 16-year old in Mumbai's observation home prepares to fight his case, his friends gear up for the upcoming 12th standard board exams. He is anxious he would have to repeat the year if he languishes at the home for an extended period. "I have to collect my exam ticket, without which I will not be allowed to attend my board examinations," he says with a resigned look. "I want to do a computer course after my exams conclude. I want to get out of here. I want to get a job and support my family," he says.

First published: 6 February 2016, 2:15 IST
Parth MN @parthpunter

Parth is a special correspondent with the Los Angeles Times. He has a degree in mass communication and journalism from Journalism Mentor, Mumbai. Prior to journalism, Parth was a professional cricketer in Mumbai for 10 years.