Data in doubt

The NCRB data used to justify the new law bringing down the age of responsibility for criminal action are open to interpretation.

Published : Jan 06, 2016 12:30 IST

The Juvenile Justice Board building in Madurai, Tamil Nadu.

The Juvenile Justice Board building in Madurai, Tamil Nadu.

Often the same data can be interpreted in different ways to arrive at contrary conclusions. Portions of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data have been quoted ad nauseam by the government and the media alike to justify the changes made in the juvenile justice law. Experts from the criminal justice system and the field of psychiatry are voicing their concerns about how the new piece of legislation, arrived at by selective data analysis, may adversely affect juveniles in conflict with the law.

Anant Asthana, a lawyer who has served on the Delhi State Legal Services Authority’s Panel for Juvenile Justice Boards for almost five years, asserted that the NCRB data were not even looked at while drafting or conceptualising the 2015 Bill. Asthana has also worked on reformation, rehabilitation and mainstreaming of thousands of juveniles. “It [NCRB information] was only used for public consumption through the media in order to manipulate the public and to make them believe that juvenile crime has reached a dangerous high,” Asthana said.

Bharti Ali, co-founder of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, said that it was important to remember that children in the 16-18 age group had always contributed the most to juvenile crimes ever since society existed. HAQ’s calculations, using the same NCRB data, show that the percentage of 16-18-year-olds in the total number of juveniles apprehended for crimes under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was 56.4 in 2003 and went up to 73.7 in 2014. However, Bharti Ali felt that a marginal increase in crimes committed by juveniles may not warrant an overhaul of the law. “We do not believe in just looking at the percentage of juveniles in the 16-18 age group against the total number of juveniles apprehended across all age groups instead of in terms of the total number of people arrested for crimes under the IPC,” she said.

Out of the 37,90,812 people arrested for crimes under the IPC in 2014, the number of juveniles stood at 42,566, constituting just 1.1 per cent. In 2003, the total number of people arrested for IPC crimes was 25,10,892, while that of juveniles was 24,709, that is, 1 per cent. “Does a change from 1 per cent in 2003 to 1.1 per cent in 2014 warrant a change in the juvenile justice law?” Bharti Ali asked. As for juveniles, in 2014, 31,364 of those apprehended under the IPC were in the 16-18 age group, thereby constituting 0.8 per cent of the total number arrested under the IPC. In 2003, 13,941 juveniles in the 16-18 group were apprehended under the IPC, amounting to 0.6 per cent of the total number of people arrested under the IPC. Again, this change from 0.6 per cent to 0.8 per cent between 2003 and 2014 does not call for a change in the juvenile justice law.

Bharti Ali strongly disagreed with the way the Ministry used statistics. She felt it was too simplistic and was meant to suit the agenda of vested interests instead of making a difference to the rights of women and children.

In order to understand the contribution of juveniles to crime growth in India, it is necessary to look at the absolute numbers: only 38,565 crimes involving juveniles as against a total of 72,29,193 crimes in the country in 2014. That means only 0.5 per cent of all crimes in the country in that year involved juveniles. If one takes only cognisable crimes under the IPC in 2014, then the figure is 33,526 cases involving juveniles as against a total of 28,51,563 crimes. The total number of cases under the IPC involving juveniles went down from 31,725 in 2003 to 31,597 in 2013. This brings the share of crimes committed by juveniles under the IPC down from 1.2 per cent in 2013 to 1.18 per cent in 2014.

Asthana said that a reading of the NCRB data cannot guide any policy on dealing with juvenile crime because it was based on the number of first information reports (FIRs) registered and not on the number of cases proven in courts of law. Crime data can be effective in drumming up a political campaign in the media but they can be misleading in formulating public policy if not analysed in conjunction with other realities. Even if one were to calculate the juvenile crime rate in terms of the total child population or calculate figures for certain violent crimes and look at only those in the 16-18 age group, the magnitude of the problem was not such as to warrant a change in the law, said Bharti Ali. The population of individuals under 18 years was estimated by UNICEF to be 43,53,84,000 in the year 2013 (UNICEF Report on State of World’s Children 2015.) The number of individuals under 18 arrested for alleged involvement in crimes that year was 42,566, according to the NCRB. That is, only 0.01 per cent of the population in that age group. The rate of crime for IPC cases involving juveniles in conflict with law (calculated for every one lakh people) increased from 1.8 in 2004 to 2.7 in 2014. In the case of adults, the rate went up from 168.8 in 2004 to 229.2 in 2014. This shows that juveniles do not pose the greatest threat to public safety.

In a country like India, with huge economic disparities worsened by institutionalised social discrimination, laws are often loaded against the marginalised and the poor. In this situation, nothing could be worse than making laws without substantial evidence, Bharti Ali said. The huge public uproar over the juvenile convict’s release in the 2012 Delhi gang-rape case showed that policy was guided more by emotion than evidence. “We have actually closed all doors to in-depth sociological studies on juvenile delinquency. Between 1972 and 1993, the NCRB used to provide data on the religious and ethnic background of juveniles, which was stopped for reasons best known to the government. We need more empirical studies showing the impact of migration, war and conflict, natural disasters, and so on, on children and on juvenile offenders. The government has no interest in investing in research on children’s issues and in fact in all social sector issues. Even our universities have failed to generate evidence in the last two decades to support law and policymaking,” she said.

NCRB data have also been used to justify lowering of the age of the juvenile from 18 to 16, which means adolescents above 16 can be tried as adults though they will be exempt from the death penalty. The new law goes against the collective wisdom of Parliament, which had fixed 18 as the age at which individuals could be treated as adults, and also against the grain of several judgments in the past. In Salil Bali vs Union of India 2013 , for instance, former Chief Justice of India Altamas Kabir took cognisance of the NCRB data along with international statutes and the Government of India’s 2013 National Policy for Children to rule in favour of retaining 18 years as the upper age limit for juveniles.

The NCRB data show that recidivism or relapse into criminal behaviour for juveniles is low in comparison with Western countries (only 2,609 repeat offenders of 48,230 apprehended in 2014). The government should not ignore the possibility of a therapeutic approach to rehabilitate adolescent offenders. International research shows that adolescent brains are immature and more likely to engage in reckless and sensational behaviour. The revolving door of a life of crime for young adults must, at all costs, be avoided. The best way to keep adolescents from being incarcerated is to prevent contact with the judicial system in the first place. But a coordinated and systematic approach connecting welfare, juvenile justice and psychological health and devised to reform and not punish can effectively address the problem. Bharti Ali said that the new law did not have “adequate insistence on use of individual care plans and behaviour modification therapies as part of rehabilitation programme for juveniles in conflict with the law … because it calls for huge investment, whereas the Central government has been spending only 0.05 per cent of its Budget on child protection for the last 10 years”. In fact children’s rights are witnessing further Budget cuts, she pointed out.

Professor Vikram Patel, a psychiatrist at the London School of Hygiene and Terminal Medicine, did not hide his disappointment with the new law: “First, it is out of step with science and, second, it has failed to hold the state accountable for ensuring an enabling environment for healthy child development and has instead passed the buck onto the child.” Science shows that most crimes committed by adolescents are primarily the consequence of their social conditions from childhood interacting with the unique developmental characteristics of this age group, for example, their tendency to act on impulse without fully taking into account the consequences of their actions. Patel said that most countries had recognised this evidence by building strong institutions to ensure the welfare of children so that the social conditions that damaged their development and led to antisocial behaviour were addressed. In other words, it is the fundamental duty of the state to ensure that children who live in extreme deprivation are protected from its harmful effects. This is at the heart of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which India is a signatory. Furthermore, if adolescents do commit serious crimes, custodial sentences place them in institutions where they are in the company of other young people, not adults, and where they are provided with a therapeutic environment to enable rehabilitation and recovery.

Pointing to the particulars of the case of the juvenile who is at the heart of the government’s motivation to reduce the age of responsibility for heinous crimes, Patel drew attention to severe forms of child neglect and disadvantage including extreme poverty, parental mental illness, dropping out of school, running away from the parental home, and working from the age of 10. The NCRB data corroborate these aspects as being common and show that 55.6 per cent of juveniles in conflict with the law belong to families whose annual income is not more than Rs.25,000 and 22.4 per cent have family incomes between Rs.25,000 and Rs.50,000. In 2014, more than half (52.9 per cent) or 10,530 were illiterate or out of school, 15,004 had primary education, 17,637 had secondary education, and only 5,059 had matric or higher secondary-level education. “It would not be surprising if this juvenile’s behaviours are also a sign of what child psychiatrists may call a conduct disorder. Virtually every fundamental right of this person as a child has been violated and this is, it seems to me, as much a case study of the failure of the state as that of the potential for adolescents to commit terrible crimes. If anybody should be indicted, it should be the Ministry of Women and Child Development, which has failed to take note of and rectify the failure of so many institutions in the development of this child. Let us be sure of one thing: no child is born a killer and, ultimately, our society has to take the blame for such terrible acts of violence perpetrated by young people, which is a result of a toxic mix of patriarchy and the failure of protection of child rights in our country,” he said.

Under the old law, according to the NCRB, in 2014 7,345 juveniles were sent home after advice or admonition, 8,700 were sent to special homes, 2,276 were institutionalised, 8,159 were released on probation and placed under care of parents/guardians, 3,509 either acquitted or otherwise disposed of, and 1,857 were fined. A huge number of cases involving 17,972 juveniles are pending disposal.

Injuries, both accidental and intentional, in the form of suicide and homicide, are the leading causes of death of adolescents globally. This is because of the developmental characteristics of this stage of life. There is a need for society as a whole to accept this fact and enable the right environment to help adolescents to pass through this phase of life into adulthood in a way that is least risky and harmful to themselves and to others. “We need to address the circumstances that lie at the heart of understanding why an adolescent commits crimes and ensure that, when such acts do occur, the sentence we pass is one that is intended to rehabilitate, not take revenge. The latter is critically important for there is a real danger of an already disturbed adolescent becoming an even more remorseless adult. I certainly hope that along with holding juveniles accountable for heinous crimes in the new Bill, the state will also be held accountable for its responsibilities to its children and the way it runs juvenile homes in the future,” Patel said.

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