Young and criminalThe treatment of juvenile criminals only perpetuates a vicious criminal cycle
Over the past one week, the Nepal Police busted three criminal rings that were using children, mostly from India, for robbery and deception. Involved in crimes ranging from thievery, pick pocketing and looting, the children would hand over the spoils to their older counterparts.
Professional criminals employ these minors for their speed, agility and inconspicuousness. Even if caught, the children, like Das, would weasel their way out by appealing to sentimentality. In case that didn't work, Nepal's confounded legal system that does not usually prosecute juvenile delinquents for crimes. These juvenile criminals are often recruited from among street children, who number more than 30,000. With few prospects, educational abilities or skills, these children are more than willing to join up with a criminal gang that will provide them with an income and a modicum of power.
Currently, the major legal instrument to deal with underage criminals is the Children Act 1992, formulated in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. With regard to juvenile justice, the Act stipulates criminal liability on the basis of age, prohibits rigorous punishment, guarantees remedial rights, provides for a separate juvenile court to hear cases and provides for the handover of juveniles to parents, guardians, social organisations or rehabilitation homes. Though the Act itself is sensitive to the rights and interests of children, Nepal's legal process does not adequately take into account the fact that minors are much more susceptible to emotional and psychological pressure. Before sentencing, juveniles are treated no differently from adults. They are processed through the same system as adult criminals, placed in the same holding cells and are often ill-treated.
The manner in which the legal system treats juvenile criminals only perpetuates a vicious cycle. In the absence of a proper psycho-social rehabilitation system, released juveniles only suffer from recidivism. There is only one rehabilitation home for underage criminals, in Sano Thimi, Bhaktapur, in the entire country. Thus, there is an urgent need to establish more such homes across the country that provide emotional support, education and skills training. Furthermore, the due legal process must keep with the spirit of the Children Act in the manner with which juvenile criminals are dealt with. Sensitivity, counselling and social outreach are more important than prosecution and punishment when it comes to minors.