Is lowering the age limit for juvenile crimes a solution to problems faced in the Indian society?

The Indian cabinet recently approved the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2014 that proposes treating minors older than 16 years as adults if charged with severe crimes such as rape. However, they would not be sentenced to life imprisonment or death if found blameworthy.

There have been heated discussions concerning juvenile law after the Nirbhaya incident in December 2012, where a 23-year-old woman (the media chose to call her Nirbhaya) was brutally gang raped in a moving bus in New Delhi. A total of six people were accused in the case. One of them was a juvenile who was given a lighter punishment of three years in a reform home, while the remaining were given death sentences. It is said that the horrible act of brutalising Nirbhaya with an iron rod was done by the juvenile. The incident had ignited nation-wide fury and led to numerous petitions from pressure groups to adopt ‘no mercy’ to juveniles involved in such grave crimes.

According to the Government of India data the rate of juvenile involvement in grave crimes has risen by 65% in the last decade. Is it because juveniles enjoy having a ‘getaway pass’ from the criminal prosecution?

A month earlier, the Supreme Court of India had questioned the total immunity enjoyed by juvenile offenders and asked the government to reconsider the law. In response women and child development Minister Maneka Gandhi gave a green signal from her side supporting the need to review the law.

We find that France, the UK and many states of the USA have separate courts for trying juveniles accused with serious offences. In the US, age to determine juvenility varies from state to state. In most states, it is 18 years but in few it is 17 years and in others, it is even 16 years. Until recently there used to be practice of giving even death sentences to convicted juveniles. On March 1, 2005 the US Supreme Court abolished capital punishment for convicted underage killers. It is said that there were 72 prisoners on death rows at that time who had committed grave crimes when they were juveniles. In UK, juveniles are generally tried in a youth court. However, if a juvenile is a co-accused along with an adult, then both offenders are tried in an adult court. Yet, there are also provisions to try juveniles as adults in an adult court as per the gravity of the offence committed. The basic rule followed by most of the countries’ legislatures is that the appeal of juvenility would be set aside and the culprit would be tried in a criminal court if the crime committed by the minor is a terrible one such as murder and  rape.

“Worldwide, evidence shows that the process of judicial waiver or transfer of juvenile cases to adult courts have not resulted in reduction of crime or recidivism. Instead, investments in a working system of treatment and rehabilitation of children have shown to lead to better results in reducing recidivism,” says Louis-Georges Arsenault, UNICEF India Country Representative. Arsenault confirmed that UNICEF will continue supporting the Government of India in strengthening its juvenile justice system. According to UNICEF the support includes advocating for reformative measures for all children up to age 18 irrespective of the nature of their offence and ensuring clear regulations on maximum sentences for children with guaranteed periodic reviews of sentences and revision of orders. However what UNICEF cannot overlook is that in South Asia, it is a general trend to get our age reduced by two to three years at the time of matriculation. So even if the offender is above 18 years he/she is a juvenile as per the records. Solving this issue will be a Himalayan task for all the stakeholders.

While the debate regarding the age of juveniles and whether or not they should be prosecuted as adults seems to see no end, what needs to be remembered is that an amendment to a law is not a panacea to solving the crimes in the society. The recent remark by an influential politician regarding rapes that “sometimes our boys do mistakes” clearly shows what some of the people in the Indian society think. However the rising incidents of crimes, especially violence against women, have made this topic a matter of not just discussion but also introspection. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s request to all the parents regarding the need to know the whereabouts of their boys, this matter has attained a momentum. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” As India aspires to become a superpower in the near future a serious introspection is required regarding the wrongdoings in the society especially the ill-treatment towards women and children.

Shravan Kumar LuitelCorrespondent (Our World) 

Image Courtesy: Jeff Porter (https://www.flickr.com/photos/jhporte/6414754739), Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic | Flickr