The Child Act 2001 defines “Child” as a person under the age of 18 years, and for the purpose of criminal proceedings, means a person who has attained the age of ten. If a child is found guilty of an offence, he shall not be imprisoned, but among others, may either be sent to an approved school or released on bail. For capital offences, the child shall be detained in prison at the pleasure of the Ruler (sections 91-97 of The Child Act 2001).
At the 6th National Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect, which took place on 25 to 28 June 2007 in Kuala Lumpur, the Executive Director of SHELTER, Mr James Nayagam spoke at the 5th Plenary Session and expounded on the topic ‘Child Offender, Child Victim’.
Looking at actual cases from amongst the juvenile inmates at the Kajang Prison in Selangor, where SHELTER has been conducting educational development programmes for the past three years, it was not a surprise to discover that many of the child offenders were themselves victims at one time before they become perpetrators. But what exactly is it that has caused them to behave in such a manner? From a fact finding survey that was done by SHELTER earlier this year on 150 remanded juveniles, several factors such as substance abuse, poverty and domestic violence were identified as possible catalysts of criminal involvement.
If we were to examine the types of crime that were committed by these juveniles offenders, 20.7% were involved with drugs, followed by robbery 16.7%, murder 16.0% and rape 11.3%. Other crimes include kidnapping, assault and molestation. Most crimes, as expected, were committed in the larger towns and cities. Violent crimes are particularly rampant in urban areas followed by property crime and various drug offences. Nevertheless, it is still a disturbing fact that one third of the total crimes committed by juveniles were actually committed in the rural areas. This may well be an indication of the intensifying societal pressures, which the rural folks are no longer immune to in their remote villages.
It is sad to note that prior to the child offenders’ arrest, they have already suffered much from the various abuses perpetrated by significant adults in their lives before their involvement in serious crimes. Out of the 150 juveniles offenders in the research, 67% claimed to have suffered emotional abuse, 47% has been neglected by their parents/stepparents and/or guardians and 33% had been physically abused. On top of that, 13% have also been sexually abused on at least one occasion. Only 20% of the participants in the research said that they had not been abused prior to arrest.
It may be extrapolated then that children who experienced child abuse and neglect are more likely to be arrested as a juvenile than their counterparts who have not been abused. A 2006 research conducted in the United States by National Bureau of Economic Research by Janet Currie of Columbia University and Erdal Tekin of Georgia State University concluded that child maltreatment roughly doubles the probability than an individual engages in criminal activities. This was found to be true even if in studies of twins, one of whom was maltreated when the other one was not. Children of lower socioeconomic status are both more likely to be mistreated and suffer more damaging effects. They also found that boys are at a greater risk of committing crimes as compared to girls who have been abused. Sexual abuse appears to have the largest negative effects. Moreover, the probability of engaging in crime increases with the experience of multiple forms of maltreatment.
Therefore, the importance of children receiving proper care and attention of parents can never be overemphasized. More than one third of the juvenile inmates who participated in the research mentioned that their parents were separated while more than a tenth said that their parents were divorced. Most of the parents of these child offenders were struggling with their own issues and consequently had very little time for their children.
Arrest and incarceration only serves to perpetuate the path of abuse these young offenders have to journey on. Once in prison, they are introduced to a whole new game of survival where the tactic is to bully or be bullied. The less aggressive will be subjected to more forms of abuse in prison particularly when lesser offenders are locked up together with hardcore offenders. Finally if and when they are released from prison, the abuse may continue in the form of familial rejection and societal ostracism.
While the damage of childhood abuse is irreversible, SHELTER seeks to at least prevent these young offenders from damaging their lives even further by empowering and building resilience in them so that they can cope better in prison and by learning skills that will enable them to contribute positively to the community when they leave prison. SHELTER has initiated activities and programmes, which include tutorials, computer classes and various forms of counselling and therapy. The academic classes ensure that the youths are not left behind in their studies while under detention. Counselling helps them to determine the causal factors that led to their offences, understand the sufferings they have caused their victims and to finally take responsibility for their own behaviour. Art therapy offers a form of recreation and release by expressing oneself through art.
SHELTER tries as much as possible to involve the young offender’s family in the process of ensuring a smoother transition back into life after release from prison and more importantly, to prevent reoffending. SHELTER hopes that the prison educational development work will make significant impact in helping these adolescents to cope with life behind bars for the time being and give them hope in life after their ultimate release from prison.