Are we addressing teenage delinquency correctly?

Doctors and teachers are often celebrated for the importance of their work. Teachers and doctors are supposed to be kind, empathetic, and compassionate. One generally does not hear of a doctor or teacher being kind and empathetic as this is normal. However, we do hear about unruly doctors and teachers and thankfully their persistence in the role is short-lived as they lack the basic skills. On the other hand, the concept of an empathetic police officer is less common. In fact, an empathetic police officer makes the news as they stand out as an oddity! This is borne by the fact that the news celebrates police officers who use their brain instead of brawn to reform a hardened criminal.

I have been thinking of this in the context of rising teenage delinquency in Ladakh, especially Leh town. Teenage delinquency refers to a range of behavioural traits exhibited by adolescents, including substance abuse, vandalism, theft, and violence that are deemed as unlawful or harmful. Recently, a teenage delinquent crime solved by the police was celebrated by the media as a success story. The police personnel involved in this case were projected as ‘brave’ as initial rumours claimed that even the police were scared of these delinquent teenagers!

It was common knowledge in our society that these teens would frequent public gatherings, especially Buddhist marriages, where they would demand alcohol. They would also visit Muslim marriages and enjoy a full course Wazwan meal! Refusing to comply with their demands would invite their wrath and they would smash a few car panes while leaving the party. People claim that one should not call the police as they would allege that the police were also scared of these hooligans. It is possible that these teenagers trusted their hosts’ tendency to comply with their demands to avoid any disruption that might mar the happy atmosphere. This only encouraged the delinquent teenagers. It turns out that they are an organised group—I would not call them a gang—working through social media that remained unchecked for a long time.

There was mixed reaction to the police action. Many found it insensitive to term these teenagers as ‘criminals’. Police action was necessary as it’s their job to arrest anyone who violates the law. Unfortunately, this police action was chacrterised by intensified severity as these teenagers had recently assaulted law-enforcement officers. The broader implications of such confrontations highlight the necessity for measured and balanced law enforcement responses to bridge the gap between maintaining law-and-order, and safeguarding individual rights while avoiding over-reactions that may erode community trust. Otherwise, there were routine reports of people, even the elderly, being assaulted by teenagers in cases of road rage. I remember one case in which an elderly man was beaten by a few youngsters as he did not let them overtake him. As he lay injured on a hospital dressing table, he said, “Rangber rangi nyospa! (It is my fault). I should have let them overtake me on time! They have now beaten me…”

There is no reason to believe that the police were scared of them. This was a misconception. However, their activities remained unchecked for a very long time and it grew to a level that they could soon have started taking lives. A psychiatrist friend said that this was bound to happen as no one, including law-enforcement agencies, took them seriously. They were juvenile delinquents initially who were turning into criminals. They seem to have lost their way and need to be handled with care.

The police have arrested the alleged culprits, including the kingpin, adults who were juvenile delinquents, and a juvenile in conflict with the law. Does this story end with their arrest? I think this is just the beginning if such cases are not handled properly. It should be a wakeup call for our society and law-enforcement agencies to check our preparedness to deal with teenagers in conflict with the law. We must handle a delinquent teenager before they grow into a criminal.

Communities play an important role in preventing and addressing teenage delinquency. By fostering a sense of belonging and support, communities can create a protective buffer against negative influences and provide opportunities for positive engagement. Local government, NGOs, and community leaders can collaborate to establish after-school programmes, sports clubs, art initiatives, and other activities to channel the energy of teenagers to constructive outlets. Engaging teenagers in such programmes will keep them away from potential delinquency and nurture their talent and interest. In many parts of the world, civil society members have come out to check activities of unaccompanied minors in public spaces or after certain time in the day/night. There is a general notion among parents in Leh that something is amiss in local schools leading to social pressure to send their wards to costly boarding schools outside Ladakh. Many see this as a good investment for their child’s future without realising that they remain vulnerable in many ways. To use a metaphor from pschylogy, we seem to be responding to this problem with a flight response rather than to fight it.

Drug abuse among youth seems to be increasing in our society. Teenage delinquency and drug abuse are often intertwined and form a troubling behavioural cycle. As adolescents face challenges and peer pressure, some may turn to substance use as a way to rebel or cope. This risky behaviour can lead to criminal activities, disrupting their lives and future. Conversely, engaging in delinquent acts can expose teenagers to environments where drugs are prevalent. Comprehensive strategies are needed to address this issue with a focus on education, prevention, and support. Without proper treatment and support, vulnerable youth struggling with substance abuse may resort to criminal behaviour to sustain their addiction. Such a scenario underscores the importance of an effective de-addiction facilities to address the physical aspects of addiction along with counselling and social reintegration. The absence of a quality drug de-addiction centre could amplify delinquency among teenagers. However, ladakh still lacks such a centre.

Once a teenager in conflict with the law has been apprehended, the manner in which police handles them is very important. I have heard parents claiming that police action messes up everything and how the police abused a teen in their custody in front of their parents. In frustration, many parents too abuse their children while they are in custody. One such boy I met remembers his father commenting in front of everyone while he was in police custody “We would have been happier if you had died.” Another adolescent boy once told me about an instance when he did not hear the police siren and did not allow the police to overtake his car. He was stopped and slapped by the police. He recounted, “A policeman tapped a gun on my chest and said “Nono, why do we think we carry a gun? I can shoot you!” The boy said he felt very weak and traumatised. Such experiences plant seeds of resentment and distrust towards authority figures and could push teenagers away from law-abiding behaviour.

A criminal record that usually follows will hamper the future prospects of a teenager leading to a cycle of repeated offences and increasing the burden on the justice system. Empathetic policing needs to be promoted by providing law-enforcement agencies with comprehensive training that emphasises emotional intelligence, active listening, and conflict resolution skills. This will help arm officers with skills to handle delinquent teenagers with a compassionate mindset rather instead of brute strength. It is for this reason that the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act (JJ Act), 2015 mandates a special dedicated police unit to deal with teenage delinquency. Currently, we have police officers assigned to deal with juveniles at every police stations but they always have additional duties. Thus, there are no dedicated juvenile police units in Ladakh as of now.

A senior law officer once recounted an incident from his youth when he was slapped by a policeman for ignoring a police siren as part of an official’s entourage. This is unfortunate. The people in uniform must instil a sense of security rather than fear. I am happy that the siren culture has stopped now. Now, whenever I hear one I am confident that it is an ambulance on a medical emergency. Officers, especially ones in uniform, must have a simpler and more approachable presence in peaceful areas like Ladakh without needing an elaborate entourage and a wailing siren. The subtlety of their conduct will strengthen the peaceful environment. We have had officers who travelled in simplicity or even walked to their office. These unadorned officers symbolised true strength and are testament to the fact that real power does not require extravagant displays. Such restrained authority will convey a sense of relatability, bridging the gap between law-enforcement agencies and the public.

The juvenile police unit hands over the future of the delinquent teenagers to the judiciary.The JJ Act mandates that every district to have a Juvenile Justice Board. It also mandates that the first class magistrate be a member of the board and should have special knowledge or training in child psychology. Thus, the law does see the need for a trained and empathetic judiciary to address teenage delinquency as their decisions hold the power to either rehabilitate or exacerbate the issue. If the judicial system is not empathetic it risks alienating troubled youth and potentially worsening their behaviour. An empathetic approach can break the cycle of delinquency, offering guidance and support instead of punitive measures.

The JJ Act outlines the legal framework to handle cases involving minors who are accused of committing crimes. It provide a separate system for juvenile offenders, taking into account their age, maturity, and potential for rehabilitation. It focusses on rehabilitation and reintegration rather than punitive measures for young offenders. Rehabilitation programmes such as de-addiction, counselling, education, vocational training, and mentorship offer teenagers the opportunity to grow and change positively. The lack of a social support, dedicated rehabilitation and de-addiction centre, counselling, juvenile police units, safe house and shelters are important aspects of a more sensitive approach to address teenage delinquency. Ladakh has a long way to go in this regard.

By Dr Spalchen Gonbo

Dr Spalchen Gonbo is a Paediatrician based in Ladakh

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