Retrograde changes

The proposed enactment of legislation providing for trial in a criminal court of minors above the age of 16 who are accused of serious offences such as rape and murder is clearly a retrograde step. It goes against the principle of reformatory justice that underpins the existing Juvenile Justice Act, 2000.

Under the current law, juvenile offenders are tried by the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) irrespective of the gravity of the offence and can be sentenced to a maximum of three months in a correction home. However, The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2014, says that a 16 to 18-year-old, accused of a heinous crime or a habitual offender, can be tried, if the JJB so decides, in a court in the adult criminal justice system.

This means that a child will not only be tried like an adult but also punished like one and even incarcerated in a jail for adults. It stops short, however, of allowing life-terms and death sentences for a juvenile offender.

It was in the wake of the gang-rape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi in December 2012 that the question of trial of juveniles entered public discourse. When one of her assailants, a 17-year-old, was given a three-month sentence at a correction home, it evoked public outrage, even triggering baying for his blood.

Amid this shrill discourse came sage advice from the Justice Verma Commission, which opposed treatment of underage persons accused of serious crimes as adults.  In amending the law to treat minors accused of heinous crimes, as adults, the NDA government has ignored the Verma Commission’s recommendations, choosing instead to heed an ill-informed mob’s definition of ‘justice.’

The trial and treatment of juvenile offenders as adults is a breach of domestic and international jurisprudence. Worse, it is based on the flawed belief that human beings, including children, are incapable of reform. Innumerable studies show that given the right environment and opportunities, human beings– especially children – can change for the better.

It is a pity that when the rest of the world is moving towards reformative criminal justice systems, especially in the handling of juvenile offenders, India is moving in the opposite direction. Juvenile crime may be increasing but amending laws to mete out tougher punishment to young offenders or locking them up with adult criminals is not the solution.

Instead, the government should develop correctional homes that provide counselling and guidance to child offenders to grow into responsible adults.

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