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Juvenile offenders see themselves as victims, not criminals


Clinical psychologist Dr Rajat Mitra has worked with young people for close to 25 years and is director of Swanchetan, a non-profit that provides counselling for victims of violence and abuse. He attributes the violence to a complex interplay between environment and genes. But the bottom line, according to Dr Mitra, is that adults have let children down. Excerpts from an interview:

There has been an increase in the number of crimes committed by juveniles. Why is that?

One important reason is that their role models are violent and aggressive. Violence appeals to young people. Their fantasies are violent. When the fantasy is no longer able to satisfy them or hold them back, they act it out to get a high. In several cases of shootings on school and college campuses in the US, the investigators found violent CDs in the possession of the perpetrators of the crime. Violence gives them an adrenaline rush. They associate it with a 'high' and power, but not with pain.
Another reason is that they believe in what they think is right and not what is right. You can't talk to them in absolute terms of right and wrong. They believe in relative values because they imbibe their values from peer-supported platforms, like television, instead of from parents and teachers. People across socio-economic backgrounds have access to TV and the internet now. Parents, too, need to be more proactive. They need to set boundaries for teenagers. They should stop protecting their children when they exhibit deviant behaviour and instead seek counselling or therapy for them. If you let your child get away the first time, he/she may commit more serious crimes later.

What is your experience of counselling juveniles in conflict with law?

During a session with sexual offenders in an observation home for juveniles, I wanted to show them drawings made by their victims. Most of them were under 19. They refused to look at the drawings. They said, "Sir, you can make us do anything but please don't show us these. " They found it difficult to face the pain of their victims. They didn't want to listen to what violence does to the victim. But if you can make them understand and accept the pain they have inflicted, they can be reformed. This method is used in many countries. Giving them moral lessons or shaming them never works.

Another method is to get a reformed criminal to talk to them. I realised this while working with juvenile offenders in Jail No. 4 in Tihar, called the 'munda ward' by other convicts. A 'jathedar', who had committed violent crimes but had reformed, used to talk to them. He had a positive influence on them. If you want to rehabilitate juvenile criminals, you need to do it scientifically.

Do they feel remorse?

By and large they feel very little remorse. They see themselves as victims of crime and not its perpetrators. They believe their victim brought the crime upon himself or herself. In order to reform them, you need to understand their sense of victimisation.

One of the accused in the December 16 Delhi gang-rape is a juvenile. He is from a poor family and ran away from his village in UP 11 years ago. Is poverty the reason for crime?

No, poverty is not a reason for a young person to commit crime. That is a Marxist point of view. We cannot have a reductionist approach to crime. You have to take into account the person's psycho-social history, biology and environment. Often, a hardened criminal has been witness to violent episodes in childhood. Environment plays a big role. In one case, a man had slaughtered his two nephews in Delhi. One of the things he told me was that his father was mentally ill and violent. Violent parenting and neglect play a big role in pushing teenagers towards crime.

The father of the juvenile accused in the gang-rape is said to be mentally ill...

Yes, this could be a contributing factor towards why he committed such a gruesome act. The fact that his father is mentally ill points to two things - one, he lacked a role model and two, his genes were against him. A combination of these factors or a combination of violent parenting and genetic predisposition of mental illness could push children to violence.

So violence can be traced to bad genes?

It's not so simple. Why a person commits crime is a complex interplay of biology and environment. These factors don't work in isolation. Their interaction is still being studied. For example, if a child with a higher inclination for violence gets beaten up, or undergoes a grave crisis and does not have a "secure base", chances are that he might take to violence. In psychology, "secure base" refers to caregivers who provide a safe base for the child to explore the world. This is part of the attachment theory developed by psychoanalyst John Bowlby. He said the relationship between infant and mother during the first five years is crucial to socialisation and its disruption could lead to a higher incidence of juvenile delinquency.

What do you think of the growing demand that some juveniles be tried as adults for heinous crimes?

It may help in some ways. But right now the demand seems a knee-jerk reaction. There's a major cognitive dissonance between ages taking place. Cognitive skills of a 16-year-old of 20 years ago are very different from that of a 16-year-old of 2012. These factors need to be addressed. Many juveniles demonstrate extremely deviant thinking and may need treatment for years before they can safely be integrated into mainstream society.

How can we bring down juvenile crime?

First, we as adults need to understand juveniles. Parents and teachers have lost touch with adolescents. Young people are withdrawing into a fantasy world fed by violent cartoons, video games and television. Second, we made mistakes in tackling crime in the last century by connecting it to poverty. This needs to be corrected. Finally, there has to be bonding between parents and children, whether rich or poor, literate or illiterate. How people stay together in times of crises determines violence in the world.

Reader's opinion (1)

Puja MarwahaJan 14th, 2013 at 13:23 PM

such a succintly put POV .

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