Interview: Dr Shekhar P. Seshadri and Dr Preeti Jacob

‘The child should be given a chance to reform’

Print edition : January 22, 2016

Preeti Jacob and Shekar P. Sheshadri: "We believe that most behaviours—criminal or otherwise—are pretty much universal. The contributory factors are the same for juvenile offenders the world over." Photo: K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Interview with Dr Shekhar P. Seshadri and Dr Preeti Jacob of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NIMHANS, Bengaluru.

Dr Shekhar P. Seshadri, a Professor at the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru, has been working in the area of child and adolescent mental health, especially with children from difficult circumstances, for the past 30 years. He has an abiding interest in community psychiatry and qualitative research using experiential methodologies.

Dr Preeti Jacob, an Assistant Professor at the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, has worked with a number of children in conflict with law in collaboration with the Centre for Child and Law (CCL), National Law School India University (NLSIU). Excerpts from an interview they gave Frontline:

There is a notion that if someone is old enough to rape he is old enough to hang (or old enough to face the criminal justice system as an adult). According to many critics of this argument, neuroscience has shown that while adolescents know right from wrong, they lack the capacity to control their instincts to undertake risky behaviour. Is the adolescent brain old enough to know the consequences of its act?

The adolescent brain cannot be judged in the same way in which an adult’s brain is judged. While almost 90 per cent of brain development—in terms of volume—occurs by about six years of age, the fine-tuning of the brain continues well into the third decade of life. So the point we are making is that while the volume of the brain is all there, the connections and the functionality of the various parts take time to develop.

How different is the adolescent brain from the adult brain? Can you explain the development of the brain from a neuroscience perspective?

There are two key concepts in the development of the brain: one is called “pruning” and the other is called “myelination”. As the brain develops, pruning is the process when the brain eliminates connections that it feels are not being used. It starts near the time of birth and continues into adolescence. There are two types of pruning: “regulatory pruning” and “pruning of the maturing brain”. The latter is the kind of pruning that occurs during adolescence. In this type, connections that are frequently used are strengthened and those that are not used or are rarely used are eliminated. Myelination is the process where a fatty sheath forms around the axon of the neuron [nerve cells] in order to conduct nerve impulses faster. Myelination makes the brain more efficient as it transmits information faster and enables the brain to undertake more complex operations. It starts in childhood and continues into the third decade.

The last part of the brain to get myelinated is the frontal cortex, specifically the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that helps in impulse control and executive functioning apart from critical thinking. The limbic system is the primitive part of the brain that deals with emotions, memory and drives and can be likened to the engine of a car. The frontal cortex, especially the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, can be compared to the brake system of a car. In adolescence the “brakes” are not fully functional [as they haven’t been completely myelinated].

Another point to note is that in some cases, the brain is more vulnerable for reasons of heightened stress while growing up. In such cases, the brain takes more time to develop fully.

You say that physical maturity and mental maturity do not go hand in hand.

Yes, physical maturity does not go hand in hand with cognitive maturity. While someone may be old enough and physically mature to assault/aggress, do they really understand the consequences of what they are doing—not in a retrospective sense but at that point in time? Many adolescents are capable of regulating their emotions and actions but children who come from disadvantaged and unfortunate backgrounds, who have themselves undergone severe abuse or trauma of any sort, find it more difficult. If you compare this with an adult: most adults can contain their impulses. Thus, there is a great need to understand the balance between the nature of a child’s/adolescent’s act and the nature of the circumstances from which the child comes from. We refer to this as the issue of proportionality.

If pruning and myelination of the brain are completed in the third decade of a person’s life, is there a case for increasing the age of a person to be tried as an adult to 21?

Well, globally, the age of adulthood has been accepted as 18 years even though it does not have any basis in science. It would be injudicious with the scientific evidence at hand to lower it to 16 years. It is another argument all together whether we are going to increase it to 21 years, when a person is considered to be biologically mature. But lowering it to 16 with all this evidence is unwise.

The age of a juvenile offender to be tried as an adult has been lowered in the Juvenile Justice Bill, 2015. What do you have to say about this?

We come from a position of deep respect for anyone who’s a victim of violence and for their families. We come from a position where we believe in zero tolerance to any form of violence. That is non-negotiable. We are not saying that an offender, say the adolescent who was part of the gang that committed the Delhi gang rape, should not be accountable for what he did. Of course, he has to be held accountable. But does accountability have to be in the adult criminal system or are there provisions in the existing Juvenile Justice Act [with the amendments made in 2006 and 2011] by which this can be done? We believe that there is a provision in the Juvenile Justice Act, 2000, and that is where we see the difference between retributive justice and rehabilitative justice. If a child commits his first petty crime, let us say he pilfers something, do you push the child towards a criminal justice system or towards a child mental health system? The answer is obvious. The child should be given a chance to reform under a rehabilitative mental health system.

There is a difference between culpability and accountability, and accountability is part of the therapeutic process and part of the work that we do is to address issues of accountability and reformation.

In your experience in working with adolescent offenders, would you say that the rehabilitative process has been successful?

Yes, in our experience, the rehabilitative system has been successful. The mental health system functions under the belief and the premise that transformation is possible and we believe in restorative processes. If an individual care plan [ICP] is executed with care and precision and a process based on long-term monitoring, it works. An ICP has to be entrusted to people who are able to execute this rehabilitative restorative plan, which looks at a number of factors that brought the child in conflict with the law [risk factors] and how to rehabilitate him in a manner that he can go back to society.

For each child to be rehabilitated, we need to look at psycho-socio-legal rehabilitation, that is, the psychological state, the social condition from which the child comes and where the child is going to go back, and the legal reason why the child has come into conflict with the law. What we usually observe is that while the legal redress occurs, the psycho-social rehabilitation does not occur in the way in which it is envisioned in the Juvenile Justice Act, 2000. Unless we look at it from a psycho-socio-legal perspective we are not looking at holistic rehabilitation. We need to understand the chid, the background from which he/she comes and the reasons for his coming into conflict with the law.

The rehabilitative process is successful when a therapeutic alliance is built with the adolescent. We also need to think about what this child is going to do once he goes back to society and provide vocational rehabilitation. So if we do not look at the process of rehabilitation holistically and just look at the criminal aspect repeatedly, it is going to be inadequate.

What is the background of child offenders in your experience?

Children who come into conflict with the law invariably came from brutal backgrounds where they have been neglected; severely abused emotionally, physically or sexually; or have undergone severe trauma and deprivation. Every child in conflict with the law is a child who would have been in need of care and protection at some point in time in their life. Even this juvenile in the Delhi gang-rape case comes from a background of severe abuse, where one parent had a mental illness. [We also wonder how all this information is available in the public domain when there are strict confidential clauses.]

The brain of a child offender is a brain that is not fully developed. In a state of emotional arousal, whether due to stress or excitation, an adolescent’s brain is further compromised. So the brain development of children who come from backgrounds where there are severe nutritional deprivation, trauma and abuse is further delayed/compromised.

Does the Indian experience of adolescent criminal behaviour differ from the global one or does it follow the same pattern?

We believe that most behaviours—criminal or otherwise—are pretty much universal. The contributory factors are the same for “juvenile offenders” the world over.

What are the limitations of an adequate mental health care plan in the rehabilitative process?

The mental health system is one cog in the larger wheel of the rehabilitative process. All the other cogs also have to function equally well for the mental health care plan to be successful. If you look at the way government homes for juvenile offenders are run, one will understand that there are several angles to this process. We can’t do anything if a child goes back to a government home where he is being abused. All systems [government home, education, vocational skill, health, both physical and mental] have to step up and the child needs to be looked at holistically. The cornerstone of the Juvenile Justice Act, 2000, was the ‘best interest of the child’, and that must be adhered to in every rehabilitation plan.

As mental health care professionals, what do you think of the Juvenile Justice Act, 2000?

The Juvenile Justice Act, 2000, was a comprehensive piece of legislation, which had its heart in the right place. But the 2015 one is more punitive and it does not look at child mental health. The 2000 Act ran into problems when it came to implementation, but now we are looking at an Act that is punitive on paper.

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