Criminal tendencies in youthful offenders | Sunday Observer

Criminal tendencies in youthful offenders

Every young Sri Lankan must have a decent teenage life with affordable access to good things
Every young Sri Lankan must have a decent teenage life with affordable access to good things

The teenage years of life are vital in establishing a stable foundation, one that raises a mature and productive adult. Many youth in Sri Lanka receive a good education supplemented by sports and other leadership oriented activities. But not every youth is that fortunate. A small segment of young people, boys and girls tend to end up in prison, as Youthful Offenders. The statistics released by the Department of Prisons for 2017 shows that there are 428 young offenders (384 males and 64 females) who are aged 16 years and under. Another chart indicates the number of direct admissions – unconvicted prisoners for 2017 at 6812 (age between 16-22 years). The next level shows quite a significant increase of 22,556 men and women aged 22- 30 years (for the year 2017). Their crimes and offences cover a broad and interesting criminal spectrum. These figures should indicate red flags to the authorities concerned, including the law enforcement agencies.

How did these young people end up in Correctional Centre’s for Youth Offenders? Sri Lanka presently has three closed prisons and 18 remand prisons, it operates two centres’ for youth offenders at Pallansena and Taldena. Many opine that these young folks have a “mix” of many factors that led them to select a criminal lifestyle. The “mix” would include broken family situations, living with an abusive parent, living with a divorced parent who has an illicit love affair, living in a family where the mother is a sex worker, being in a family where one elder sibling is already a criminal in jail or a former criminal rejected by society. The youth can also suffer from not receiving love, acceptance and affection. Young people form and join gangs giving each the other acceptance which they never got at home. Orphans have been found in criminal gangs, the only form of family they know.

It gets worse when a teenager, especially a girl is subject to sexual abuse by an adult or relative. This kind of incident has been witnessed in families where parents go to work in some Middle-Eastern countries, leaving the innocent children in the care of relatives and even grandparents. The child builds up hatred and low self-esteem.

Previous violent young offenders are known to have come from homes where criminal parents forced them act as couriers for drugs. Yet another reason for young people to go astray is the vibrant sex industry that takes place in many beach destinations, where young girls are sold for sex by pimps. These poor girls sell their body for dollars and euros, ending up with sexually transmitted diseases. Whilst a majority of these incarcerated youth reflect broken homes and lifestyles, there are young men and women from Colombo and other major cities, who have had access to English education and a fancy life, who also wound up as juvenile drug dependent delinquents. How is this explained?

Sociology and psychology experts believe there is more to life than sending a child to school, giving the child a pet dog and showing them cartoons on television with an occasional visit to a pristine beach. Ranil Thilekeratne is the manager of the 1333 suicide prevention hotline operated by the CCC Foundation (courage- care- compassion). He explained “For centuries the Sri Lankan life as we know it centered on the family, and then extended to religious places like the temple, kovil, church and mosque. Today, with the digital revolution there is a gap in family and moral values. Yes, technology and social media is good, but we must use them wisely. Most of the youth who call and talk to our trained telephone counselors indicate broken relationships at home. No real communication between parents and teenagers. Parents are busy (trying to give the young people a good life), but end up spending too much time at work. The young children have emotional needs. Parents don’t appreciate or acknowledge a child’s achievements”. There have been instances where young girls have runaway with drivers and masons working in the house. The teenager seeks acceptance. Ranil adds “We hope to implement a programme called Let’s Talk where teenagers in school and campus can confide in teachers (who will be trained). We are waiting for approval from the Ministry of Education. Young people need to talk and confide in a caring adult. When they lose hope they decide to commit suicide or act in a violent criminal way which sends them into the prison system”.

Education simply based on textbooks will not be a deterrent to criminal tendencies. Prison statistics for 2017 indicate that most inmates have had a basic form of education. 25,613 have passed Grade 5. Another 11,071 have passed the GCE Ordinary level exam with 2,835 passing the GCE Advanced level exam. There are 82 graduates in prison. One must note these are adult inmates, yet they were carefree teenagers once, not too long ago. How did they obtain basic academic input and commit robbery, rape and murder? Where did these youth go wrong? Many were sentenced when young and are now serving sentences of life in prison and the death sentence.

A classic case study to examine is the life of notorious serial rapist Ted Bundy (Theodore Robert Bundy) from USA, who was sent to the electric chair for the convicted rape/murder of 33 women. Ted was educated with a degree, handsome and had excellent communication skills. It was during his incarceration that the FBI learnt a dark secret- Ted’s mother was actually his sister (the girl had been raped by her own father and gave birth to Ted). After learning this terrible secret when he was 14 years he nurtured a hatred and mistrust of women, which when his mind was triggered manifested with bloody mayhem and demonic lust.

Sri Lankan youthful offenders are given rehabilitation at these centres, where they learn team work. Their day is infused with physical training, spiritual insight and religious observances. I briefly had a look at this last year when visiting a military establishment in the Eastern Province. A massive drug rehabilitation camp was found in the adjacent land, with the name board ‘Take back your life’. This facility does a very good program and must be commended. Re-integration into society is the biggest challenge. The Sri Lankan community, including the corporate and government sector is not fully geared to employ a rehabilitated youth. A former Commissioner of Prisons told me years ago about the formation of Wanathamulla, which is close to the Welikada Prison. Young men who served short sentences of 6 months to 2 years when released were rejected in their villages. They in turn found odd jobs, married equally unfit girls and created a ghetto like clan at Wanathamulla (of course every one living in this area is not a criminal), which is still an undesirable part of Colombo.

Another issue is that young people have to depend on their parents' income, which for some is not sufficient and it provokes them to steal and kill. Why haven’t we introduced part time jobs like the USA where teenagers and campus students can work, earn and enjoy. This gives them confidence and money management skills. It is time that society took note of troubled teenagers. These youth are vulnerable to ideological radicalisation, and we have seen subversive uprisings in the North and South in the past. Every young Sri Lankan must have a decent teenage life with affordable access to good things. 

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