How Sujit turned over a new leaf

Print edition : January 22, 2016

Seventeen-year-old Sujit was found to have committed the murder of his 16-year-old friend. The main accused in the case were adults who had actually committed the act, but Sujit was the one who took the victim to the spot where the group was waiting. Sujit was living with his sister, her husband and their child and was eager for the gang to accept him as a part of it. The adults were local rowdies with criminal records who often used youths in the locality to run errands for them, purchasing cigarettes, alcohol and so on. Following the murder, there was a riot between two communities as some of the gang members were Dalits and the victim and some of the other gang members belonged to a different caste.

Sujit was wracked by guilt and traumatised first by the murder he witnessed and then by the violence unleashed on his family. Despite this, through the counselling process, Sujit came up with an alternative, which in his mind was “fair” though not adequate. He repeatedly told the counsellor that he understood he had caused irreparable hurt and harm to the victim/victim’s family, and that even though he could not “compensate” the loss of the victim, he wanted to “pay for” his act through a set of actions.

a. He wanted to meet the family and apologise to them. In his words—“I am willing to wash their feet with my tears”.

b. He was willing to be reprimanded by the victim’s family—as he felt they were justified and entitled to it considering he had caused the death of their son.

c. He wanted to practically demonstrate his “repentance” and “pay for” his offence by taking up a job for three years and giving all the money he earned through that job to the victim’s family, instead of being locked away in a special home for three years. He felt that since he had deprived the victim’s family of a potential breadwinner, he should take on that role and support it.

d. He wanted a chance to beg the community to give his sister and her child a chance. (His sister and her one-year-old child were brutally attacked by the victim’s community and chased out of the village.) He recognised that his action had made a victim of his own family members.

Sujit was described in the popular media as a remorseless killer who had been “inspired” by the Kannada movie Dandupalya, which chronicled the crimes of a dreaded gang of dacoits and murderers in Karnataka. Popular Kannada television channels flashed Sujit’s pictures on air and he was portrayed as a cold-blooded murderer who had brutally killed an innocent boy who was his own friend.

The following details about Sujit were not revealed by the media:

He was a child in need of care and protection; he had lost his parents when he was still very young. He had undergone child abuse, physical, emotional and sexual, as part of his growing up experience. He had seen poverty and hunger since his childhood, yet longed to study like any other child. He worked odd jobs and went to school whenever he could as he had to earn for his keep while living with his sister and his brother-in-law. Sujit had never been to a doctor in his life and was discovered to be suffering from tuberculosis after a year of being apprehended. His mother and uncle had both suffered from tuberculosis and died after they could not afford treatment. During his stay at the observation home, Sujit showed marked symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress contrary to the popular perception that he was being treated “leniently” under the juvenile justice system.

What if Sujit had been transferred to the adult criminal justice system?

a. Plea of guilt and consequences in the juvenile justice system: Sujit pleaded guilty before the Juvenile Justice Board. Counselling provided to the child enabled him to understand the consequences of his crime, which had resulted in the loss of a life, to take responsibility for it, and be willing to make amends through practical, demonstrable actions. Would transfer to the adult criminal justice system have inspired or enabled such options?

b. Environment: At the observation home, Sujit was surrounded by young boys like himself from impoverished backgrounds with whom he was able to relate to. He found empathy for his situation and learnt to express empathy for others like himself. He was surrounded by adults—like a probationary officer who regularly interacted with him and calmed his fears of what might be happening to his family, a counsellor who helped him understand the connection between his actions and its consequences, a social worker who worked closely on developing his life skills of decision-making, relationships and communication, and so on.

The juvenile justice system provided him an environment conducive to reform, and not a training ground for future crime. Transfer to an adult prison would have brought him in contact with adult criminals who would have likely abused him, hardened him and groomed him for a life of crime.

c. Victim and community’s right to justice and safety: Sujit expressed intent and demonstrated through his behaviour both at the observation home and at the special home that he was ready to make amends to the victim’s family. He took on cooking chores at the observation home and would earnestly request the staff if he could be paid for the same and whether that money could be directly given to the victim’s family. There was no mechanism to enable a follow-up on this suggestion from Sujit.

His probationary officer felt that Sujit was an ideal candidate for a community-based programme but there were no such programmes where he could be placed. Sujit’s continued stay in the special home strengthened his resolve to do his bit for the community. Transfer to an adult criminal justice system might have resulted in the same verdict of “guilty”, but would the community have been any safer after his release a few years later—without him getting an opportunity and guidance to introspect or repent, make amends or take responsibility for his actions? Serving his term in prison would have alienated him from the community and perhaps led him to believe that he had “paid his debt”, without ever having a chance to engage with any meaningful processes that would have helped him take full responsibility for his actions, leave alone restore his own self-respect or his relationship with the victim and the community.

The restorative justice approach, now gaining international recognition, has the potential to enable reformation, restoration, justice to victims and community, and, most importantly, enable children to become productive citizens with less likelihood of re-offending.

Sujit is not the boy’s real name and the change was made to protect his identity. His case was a submission made by the Centre for Child and the Law (CCL) at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru, to the Parliamentary Standing Committee, along with oral submissions, on January 2, 2014. Sujit was provided psychosocial and legal services by the multidisciplinary Juvenile Justice Team at the CCL, NLSIU. He is currently in a special home in Bengaluru and is preparing to take the board examinations through the open schooling system.

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