Addressing juvenile and youth crime

Research: Addressing the multiple factors of juvenile and youth crime necessitate coordinated and integrated approaches, a National Statistical Bureau (NSB) study suggests.

The study, “Crime and mental health issues among the young Bhutanese people,” states that current programmes to support vulnerable youth organised by various government and non-government agencies are duplicating.

The study concludes that poverty and deprivation either directly drove young offenders into criminal acts, as means to survive or impacted them indirectly by generating other drivers of crime.

“The reason for what I am [prisoner] today was my family’s serious economic problem,” a 22-year-old prisoner stated in his interview with NSB. “I had to forge my cousin brother’s signature to withdraw money that I needed to study in a private school…”.

Another 18-year-old stated that he started to steal money to save for a bicycle after seeing his friend ride one. At 15, he was caught stealing a DVD and a laptop because he did not have television at home.

In many cases, drug and alcohol abuse coupled with family and economic problems caused young people to commit crime.

In response to NSB’s questionnaire, one 21-year-old convict stated that he became a drug addict as it was easy for him to get money to buy drugs. While he decided to quit, thinking that it was distressing his parents, he couldn’t. After being convicted twice for drug abuse, he was sentenced to prison after stabbing a taxi driver.

“I was under the influence of drugs. That time I was with my friends. We were travelling by a taxi, and on the way, we got into a brawl with the taxi driver,” he said. “I stabbed him and drove away his taxi. I was excited to drive a car as well.”

In supporting youth crime prevention, NSB suggests identifying poor households with children at risk of engaging in criminal and antisocial behaviour, and providing them social and economic opportunities.

This is because the study found that in effect, all of them have dreams and aspire to return to their families, communities and society.

NSB stated that currently, no satisfactory programme exists to facilitate the prisoners’ reentry into their families and communities.

For example, a young ex-convict, who had acquired some vocational skill and aptitude in prison, may wish to attend a formal vocational course. In such cases, the study points out that the convict should be given admission to a vocational institute not on the basis of educational qualification, but on skills, aptitude and competence.

The subjects of the NSB study express repentance over their own criminal deeds and were inclined to reform. But their greatest fears seem to be whether society will accept them back.

The majority of them want to continue their studies after completing their prison terms or take up vocational training. Many of them hope to start businesses of their own, while others want to help their parents or look for employment.

According to the study many young prisoners are trying to refine their attitudes, behaviour and actions.

“After completing my sentence, I want to continue my studies and work hard. But, I am not so sure if I will be granted the security clearance to get admission to a school,” said one young convict. “Given the chance, I aim to become an engineer. I feel I can achieve this aim, as I used to be good at studies. It was simply that I ended up in the prison, otherwise, I don’t doubt my intelligence and capability. It all depends on whether the government will give me a second chance in life.”

Another 16-year-old convict was quoted as saying he first wants to apologise to the victim and promise not to get involved in any criminal activities. “If I am given a chance to study, I would like to pursue my dream of becoming a teacher. I would not wish to return to my village, as my fellow-villagers may look down upon me for my criminal record.”

As per the study, prisons seem to serve as means to reform the criminals, but more needs to be done.

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“I got frustrated and sad on knowing that I was being sent to a jail… Now I spend my time playing games that makes me forget about my days here in the prison. We have facilities for games, television, and programmes to develop our skills in art and crafts…,” a 22-year-old said.

“After coming here, I met many friends. I have realised the importance of not harming others, but the need to help others…I respect the Police Officer (OC) like my own mother. She is very kind to all of us. Her presence [with us] makes us feel happy,” a 16-year-old said.

However, the only rehabilitation centre for young offenders is managed by the police, which do not fully decriminalise young offenders. But experiences in other countries show that rehabilitation activities are normally carried out by government agencies, NGOs and local communities, the study pointed out.

However, the study also revealed that about 49 percent of people surveyed felt some injustice prevails in society, with the dominating view being that the country’s laws discriminate between the poor and rich.

About 35 percent of them were not in favour of the current provisions of the rape law, citing it is biased towards girls and women. Sixteen percent of them said the laws are not being strictly enforced.

“There is the need to change the way trials are conducted. The sentencing is left to the judge’s discretion, which I think is not fair. The offenders from the rich and powerful families are given less years of sentence even when they have committed murder,” a 24-year-old said.

“One of my friends involved in the same crime got bail, whereas I did not. This is unfair,” another said.

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A 22-year-old said it was unfair that he was convicted for having a sexual relationship with his own girlfriend. “She was 16 and I was 20. We had sex on consensual basis. We slept together in a hotel… She had disclosed about our sexual relationship to her friends.” The information reached the police and he was charged for rape.

Another 22-year-old expressed his dissatisfaction over his nine-year sentence for getting involved in a brawl under the influence of drugs. He stated that even cases like murder and choeten vandalism are given the sentence of 15 years.

One of the respondents of the study said that the courtroom itself presents a very petrifying environment, especially for juveniles.

“I was very terrified. I was not given much chance to raise my voice,” he said. “One thing that I remain dissatisfied with is that I was not given my right to fully speak out during the trial.”

Many of the respondents, as per the study, talked about the presence of a “spine-chilling” setup at the courts. Some of them stated that they could not speak out what they actually wanted to.

The study raises the need of establishing specialised benches in the courts that are youth-friendly and conducive for them to express their views without any apprehension and nervousness.

Around 44 inmates of Chamgang Jail and the Youth Development and Rehabilitation centre (YDRC) in Tsimasham were interviewed for the study.

Tshering Dorji

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