Juvenile offenders or adult criminals?

Juvenile offenders or adult criminals?

The nationwide uproar over the Nirbhaya gangrape case, and the prosecution of the minor offender under the ‘lenient’ Juvenile Justice Act, has finally culminated in a proposal to amend the Act itself. The Union Cabinet recently cleared a Bill that allows some juveniles, between the ages of 16 and 18 and involved in heinous crimes, to be dealt with under criminal laws for adults.

Under this proposal, discretion will be provided to juvenile justice boards to decide if a minor in conflict with law is suitable to be prosecuted in child courts or should be sent to regular ones. At the same time, it also ensures that they are not given life imprisonment or Capital punishment under any condition.

The Bill has split the community of child rights activists, police officials and lawyers, right down the middle. Many contend that it is a hurried and imbalanced decision based on only one instance, while others argue that it is an essential and thought-through move to curb crimes committed by the delinquent.

Joachim Theis, chief, Child Protection at UNICEF India, says, “This goes against the research and experience accumulated over centuries that children are not developed enough to understand crime and its consequences, and that they can’t be meted out the same treatment given to adults. Child rights is not a concept that developed today, but has been evolving since the 18th century culminating in the UN Convention of Child Rights.”

“India, in fact, should learn a lesson from US that jails juveniles at possibly the fastest rate in the world and today has jails overflowing with underage felons.”

Suneeta Dhar, director, Jagori, adds that statistics regarding juvenile offenders have been grossly misrepresented just to buttress the argument that crime can be brought under control by jailing them.

She says, “Today, National Crime Records Bureau data tells us that juveniles commit less than two per cent of all crimes. They are less than four per cent of those apprehended for rape. Also, these children come from a deplorably disadvantaged socio-economic background. They deserve a chance to be reformed rather than be bundled up with adult prisoners for years after which they
will only come out as hardened criminals.”

Atiya Bose, another child rights activist reinforces Suneeta’s point saying, “The popular argument today that rapes will come down drastically when these ‘overtly sexually-active kids’ will be imprisoned is also bogus. If you look at the figures, marital rapes, in fact, far outnumber cases of rapes by juveniles.”
Some other knowledgable persons in the field of juvenile crimes, though, present a different picture and, probably, equally convincing arguments.

Supreme Court lawyer Kamini Jaiswal questions, “Why let such offenders get away with heinous crimes when it is amply clear that they are fully aware of their actions? The juvenile in the December 16 gangrape case was shy of turning 18 by just a few months. Do you think he did not know that raping an innocent girl and violating her body in that manner is not inhuman?”

“The law is trying to address exactly such cases and not jail all child offenders.”Chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights, Arun Mathur, concurs with this view, “The proposed law is anyway not bringing down the UN marked age for adulthood which is 18. It is only saying that the Juvenile Justice Board can decide if a certain case, where the offender is between 16-18 years, is atrocious enough to be decided in a regular court. They will anyway not be given life term or
Capital punishment.”

“The biggest point here is what about the rights of the victim. Is he or she not entitled to justice? Do only the offenders have rights? Our activists must ponder on that as well.”