NEW DELHI, India — With his teenager's wispy mustache and a mullet, 19 year-old Muhammed may seem guilty of failing to keep up with current style, but you’d never guess he’s a convicted murder.
“Three of us were out of our minds on smack,” he said of his crime of two years ago. “We saw a guy walking down the road who looked like he had a little cash, so we tried to snatch his mobile and wallet. He fought back, so we stabbed him. We thought he'd be able to identify us to the police if we left him alive.”
Poor, addicted to drugs, and living on the street, Muhammad (not his real name) exemplified a disturbing dark side of India's so-called demographic dividend — an increasingly youthful population economists predict will help this country surpass China as the world's manufacturing hub by 2020.
Although the economic boom is making more people rich, rising inequality, poor education and persistent unemployment have helped prompt a spike in juvenile crime.
But Muhammed is lucky. Since he was 17 at the time of his crime, the maximum sentence he faced was a three-year stint in a so-called observation home. He served his time in a progressive pilot program that focuses on de-addiction and rehabilitation.
Less than two years later, he’s free and eager to put his life back together thanks to his rare chance from India's generally troubled juvenile justice system.
But such breaks may become even rarer, thanks to a furious campaign now underway to allow Indian courts to try young offenders as adults.
That worries children’s rights activists, who believe the global attention to last month’s vicious gang-rape of a 23-year-old Delhi physical therapy student — in which a 17-year-old boy is alleged to have taken part — is prompting knee-jerk reactions that threaten to hasten the change.
Juvenile crime rose 40 percent between 2001 and 2010, according to India's National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). The spike in violence and crimes against women by young offenders has been even more dramatic. Rapes by juveniles have more than doubled in the same period, murder is up by a third and kidnappings of women and girls has grown nearly five times.
Those figures have prompted a drive to give trial judges the discretion to try juveniles as adults, or to define youths over 16 years old as adults when it comes to serious crimes.
In what may prove to be a landmark case, the Supreme Court on Friday admitted a plea arguing that the mental age rather than physical age of the juvenile suspect in the gang rape case should be used to determine whether or not to try him as an adult.
That contravenes the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which sets the age at 18.
India's women and child development minister has spoken out against lowering the bar.
But newspapers, television channels and tough-talking politicians continue to demand a crackdown on juvenile offenders even as experts insist the juvenile system is already broken and brutal.
“It's already very custodial, very hostile, very abusive, very violent, because of state apathy,” said Anant Asthana, a child rights lawyer who works with the New Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network. “[Juvenile offenders routinely suffer] physical abuse, sexual abuse and emotional abuse within the system itself.”
Activists say officials routinely violate laws aimed at protecting children. Instead of obtaining written orders to send underage offenders to observation homes, overworked police sometimes pretend not to know children's age in order to put them in jail.
The law guarantees juveniles speedy trials, but they often spend maximum three-year sentences in observation homes, denied bail until they’re essentially compelled to plead guilty in order to be released.
Sociologists argue that reducing the threshold age to 16 wouldn’t lower juvenile crime rates. They say it would deny thousands of young offenders a chance at rehabilitation instead — and exacerbate age-old prejudices and new fears resulting from rapid social change by targeting poor youths.
“We’re a society based on hierarchies,” says sociologist Khushboo Jain, who spent three years doing field work with street children. “These young people [on the streets] are dynamic. They've taken control of their lives. But we don't want people to come up. And if they do, we try to subjugate them in any way possible.”
Bharti Ali of the Haq Center for Child Rights blames the rise in juvenile crime rates on government policies he says are prompting cycles of poverty.
“Some 80 percent of the family budget is spent on health care,” he says. “The government education system has failed, so children run away from the schools. There's a lot of domestic violence, so children leave home or they kill their fathers.”
He also points to the stark and growing contrast between rich and poor. “You have luxury malls on one side, and on the other side you have a slum,” he says.
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More than half of the children in trouble with the law come from families with households income of less than $500 a year, according to NCRB data. Critics say that trend would surely deepen if trial judges were given discretion to treat some juvenile offenders as adults.
Experts point to the United States as a warning case. Nine out of 10 juveniles who run afoul of the law worldwide never commit another crime, according to an International Save the Children Alliance report. However, in America — where more juveniles are tried as adults than in any other country — research by the Justice Department shows stricter punishment fails to deter youth crime in general or reduce the likelihood that juveniles sentenced as adults will commit crimes in the future.
That’s something 19-year-old Muhammad doesn’t question.
“If I'd been sent to jail,” he says, “I'd have come out worse than when I went in.”