Addressing Critical Concerns: Mental Health and Juvenile Justice Act (2015)

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Mental health and juvenile justice systems are isolated, moralising the subject. However, some studies have shown a direct association between convicted minors and mental health. Given how precarious mental health can be, all inmates at the juvenile detention centre must be treated with utmost care. Yet, the condition of such centres and cells have been deteriorating for quite some time. Mahenu Siddiqui addresses these concerns and draws a correlation between mental health and juvenile justice, giving recommendations for implementing the Juvenile Justice Act (2015).

mental health and juvenile justice act

By Mahenu Siddiqui, a third-year BBA LLB student from Sultan-Ul-Uloom College Of Law, Osmania University. 

Introduction

Before the Juvenile Justice Act 1986, there was no uniformity in child laws in India. Every state had its own Children Act 1960 that acted as a statutory authority governing the legal system for children in their state.[1]

The Juvenile Justice Act (1986) was replaced by the Juvenile Justice Act (2000). The JJ Act was again amended in 2015 after the horrific ‘Nirbhaya Gang Rape incident’ in Delhi. This amendment granted permission to try minors between the age of 16-18 involved in heinous crimes as adults in the court of law. The 2015 Act also improved the provisions dealing with the care and protection of children.

The two main categories that the Juvenile Justice Act (Care and Protection of Children)  2015 (herein referred to as the ‘Act’) deals with are ‘children in conflict with law’ under Section 2 (13) and  ‘children in need of care and protection’ defined under Section 2(14). These categories have also introduced the concept and importance of mental health and juvenile justice.

Mental health plays a vital role in juvenile delinquency and is a significant cause of crimes among children. According to research by the National Center for Biotechnology Information:

“approximately 50 to 75 per cent of juveniles in the juvenile justice system meet criteria for a mental health disorder. The prevalence rate of youth with mental disorders within the juvenile justice system is found to be consistently higher than those within the general population of adolescents.”[2]

The Ministry of Women and Child Development developed a set of SOPs, titled ‘Rehabilitation Of Children In Conflict With The Law’. These SOPs recognised that “reform and rehabilitation and not punishing are the guiding principles of the Act, 2015”.[3]

Thus, the guiding principle of the Act was ‘rehabilitation’. Yet, despite it, mental health services like psychosocial support, counselling, and therapy are not effectively provided in juvenile detention centres and homes.

A child found to conflict with the law can be sent to the juvenile detention centre for a period not exceeding three years.[4] As prescribed under Section 18(g) of the Act, during their stay in the detention centres and homes, the juveniles are to be provided with psychiatric care, therapy and counselling.

Despite these provisions, the juvenile detention centres in India fail to provide sufficient mental health services to the juveniles due to multiple reasons, including lack of funds and unawareness about the importance of mental health, leading to non-compliance by parents.[5]

The increasing numbers of juvenile delinquency in the country are a growing concern. To minimise its growth, the Juvenile Justice Board (Board) must formulate effective strategies to tackle mental health problems in adolescents. There is a significant gap between the policies regarding mental health in the Act and its actual implementation. [6]

This article thus addresses such inadequacies that tend to isolate subjects such as mental health and juvenile justice. The article will critically analyse how much of this change within the act has translated into juvenile detention centres and special homes. In the end, the piece will also make some recommendations to implement the Act better, recognising the need and importance of mental health.

Critical Analysis of Mental Health and Juvenile Justice System

Despite how it can affect an individual through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, mental health is not as important as physical health in India even now. However, there is no reason to overlook mental health, given the jarring statistics on the issue.

According to a national mental health survey, around 9.8 million adolescents aged 13–17 years require active mental health care. And the number is likely to rise if we consider the entire age spectrum of childhood and adolescence.[7]

In India, a number of factors contribute to juvenile delinquency, including domestic violence, peer pressure, history of abuse, socioeconomic factors, and substance abuse. Many of these contributing factors circle back to the mental health of a child.

According to the Act, no child between the age of 16-18 years involved in a heinous crime can be tried as an adult.[8]A child found in conflict with law is produced before the Board and based on the severity of their crime, they may be sent to a ‘special home’. These special homes are meant to focus on the overall development of children through reformative therapy and remedial measures.

Under Section 18(g), these ‘special homes’ should provide juveniles with quality education and skill development training. In addition, it should also provide mental health care services such as psychiatric support to the mentally challenged, behaviour modification therapy and counselling to all the children during their stay.

A report published by the United Nations titled ‘Social Inclusion Of Youth With Mental Health Conditions’ talks about how mental health issues often affect juveniles. It quotes another study to validate the same,

“About 70 per cent of youth involved in the juvenile justice system have at least one diagnosable mental health condition”[9]

The government could mitigate such crimes by addressing mental health problems in children at an early stage in their life.

In the infamous case of Amarjeet Sada v. The State Of Bihar, an 8-year-old boy from the village of Musahar in Bihar got accused of murdering three people. After the third murder was reported, the police arrested him. Since the maximum time he could spend in a juvenile detention centre was only three years, he was sent to a remand home in a neighbouring town named Munger, where he was required to stay until he reached adulthood.

Upon investigation, a psychoanalyst discovered a mental illness that distorted the boy’s sense of right and wrong and developed sadistic impulses. Thus, he felt immense pleasure in inflicting pain on others.

The illness is a typical case of child psychopathy, and many children like Amarjeet suffer from untreated mental health problems. As a result, they depend on these juvenile centres and special homes for help.

Despite the Act, health care requirements like mental health care facilities in juvenile detention centres and homes remain insufficient. Under Section 27 of the Act, the government has established one or more Child Welfare Committees (CWC) in each district to assist and relieve every child in need of care and protection.

These committees must conduct periodic assessments of all children’s mental health to compile estimates of children suffering from mental health-related issues. If a child is mentally troubled, they can be put in a foster home or another facility to receive rehabilitation services for quick recovery.

However, a significant flaw of CWC is the inability to provide sufficient access to effective mental health care. The system cannot provide enough facilities to all due to an increase in the number of detained juveniles, leading to a rise in the number of suicides, incidents of injuries, and worsening health problems.

According to several court petitions filed for systemic improvements, the juvenile detention centres and homes are in horrible condition. Despite forming Child Welfare Commission, the Board should designate a committee to oversee mental health issues in juvenile institutions and special homes.

Recommendations: Need for Incorporating Mental Health Services within the Juvenile Justice System 

The JJ Act 2015 includes provisions to improve the mental health of juveniles in juvenile centres and homes. Still, the Act is underutilised and has incorporated only minor changes in terms of mental health.

The committee and Board should conduct monthly reviews to ensure adequate sources are accessible and mental health facilities in juvenile detention centres and homes are effectively functioning. Such checks will ensure that children have access to psychosocial support at all times.

Psychotropic medications should be readily available in the event of an emergency. The Act mandates the performance of periodic assessments to ascertain the progress of juveniles so that their treatment can be continued accordingly.

Furthermore, the Act should also increase the country’s mental health care budget for these services. The amount of money set aside for mental health programmes should be proportional to the amount set aside for physical health. Despite the efforts of the Juvenile Justice system in tackling mental health problems, the Act lacks a clause regarding personnel training.

The CWC should initiate training programmes to assist the caretakers of juvenile centres and special homes in dealing with various mental health issues that might arise. In addition to this,

It should also hold educational sessions in which the families of incarcerated juveniles are taught about mental health, and awareness among juveniles is raised. This consciousness will enable families to recognise the importance and impact of mental wellbeing on children and help them cope with any similar situations arising in the future.

If the juveniles are aware of their mental health issues, they might attempt to address them and concentrate on self-improvement, which could improve their therapy outcomes. Therefore, the Act should focus on bettering the mental health of convicted juveniles and aim to improve the youth’s mental health altogether.

The same can be achieved by ensuring well-operating rehabilitation centres, conducting mental health awareness sessions in schools and colleges, setting up mental health care camps with psychosocial support, hiring informed and sensitive staff, and organising free therapy sessions at government and private hospitals.

Section 93(1) of the Act says that any child determined to be mentally ill or addicted to toxic substances should be sent to a psychiatric hospital, psychiatric nursing home, rehabilitation centre or any other similar institution for treatment.[10]

These institutions may treat the child among people of various ages and backgrounds without providing them with the special attention they require, further deteriorating their mental health. Therefore, these institutions that deal with children must give specific attention to them as it will aid their development process and increase their confidence. Further, interacting with children who have gone through similar experiences will also help them interact with the social and build some self-esteem.

Although the Act contains guidelines for mental health, strict legislation is absent to ensure its successful enforcement.

If the responsible authority, including members of the committee and the juvenile justice Board, fail to regulate mental health services properly, severe actions or heavy fines must be imposed on them.

Conclusion

As a result of the facts and considerations previously mentioned, it is clear that addressing mental health problems among the youth is a pressing need.

Mental health is often overlooked and not given the same priority as physical health due to its stigma. While the Act includes provisions governing mental health, it is not given much attention.

As explained above, mental health issues among adolescents are one of the leading causes of child crimes in India, and the CWC and Board should work together to resolve them. Therefore, the Act should address the discrepancies in the juvenile justice mechanism, and these must be detailed and incorporated within the language of the Act.

Endnotes

[1] Vyas P, “Juvenile Justice System and Laws in India – a Detailed Study” (iPleadersJune 7, 2021) https://blog.ipleaders.in/juvenile-justice-system-india.

[2] Underwood LA and Washington A, “Mental Illness and Juvenile Offenders” (International journal of environmental research and public health (February 18, 2016)

[3] Alur PR, “Rehabilitation Of Children In Conflict With The Law” (Rehabilitation Of Children In Conflict With The Law )

[4] Raju DGN, “The Gazette Of India” (juvenile justice act 2015) (January 21, 2016) http://cara.nic.in/PDF/JJ%20act%202015.pdf

[5] Pandey A, “Challenges to Juvenile Justice Laws in India” (iPleadersJune 7, 2021) https://blog.ipleaders.in/juvenile-justice-2/

[6] Editor and others, “Juvenile Justice System in India and the Mental Health of Juveniles” (SCC BlogJune 5, 2021) https://www.scconline.com/blog/post/2021/06/05/juvenile-justice-system/

[7] Sagar S, Raj A and Sarang S, “The Kids Aren’t Alright: Mental Health And Indian Youth” (Youth Ki AwaazJanuary 14, 2021)

[8] Section 15 of Juvenile Justice Act 2015

[9] Shulman, E. and E. Cauffman (2011). Coping with incarceration:  How do juvenile offenders adjust?  Journal of Research on Adolescence, vol. 21, pp. 818-826.

[10]  Raju DRGN, “Juvenile Justice Act 2015” (The Gazette Of India) (January 1, 2016) accessed May 22, 2021

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