Underage offenders need protection

The Parliamentary Standing Committee for Human Resource Development has rightly rejected proposed changes to the Juvenile Justice Act that would have allowed for trial of juveniles, who are facing rape and murder charges, as adults. Under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2014, that got Cabinet’s nod last year, children aged 16-18 years charged with heinous crimes or found to be repeat offenders in serious crimes would be tried in adult criminal courts. This meant that underage offenders charged with heinous crime would not only be tried like adults but also, punished like them. Although it ruled out life-terms and death sentences for such children, it allowed for their imprisonment in jails housing adults. The proposed legislation came in response to public outrage in the wake of the horrific rape and murder of a young Delhi woman by a gang of men, one of whom was a juvenile, in December 2012. Ignoring the sagacious recommendations of the Justice Verma Commission and in violation of the Constitution, Supreme Court judgments and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the government went ahead proposing legislation for treatment of juvenile offenders as adults. It was based on the belief that that rising crime is best prevented through stern punishment and that human beings, including children, cannot be reformed.

The parliamentary panel has done well to draw attention to the flaws in this approach. It has stressed the need for providing “greater protection” to underage offenders. It has rapped the Ministry of Women and Child Welfare for putting out grossly exaggerated statistics to justify the move to try juvenile offenders as adults. The ministry had claimed that juvenile rape accounted for 50 per cent of all cases of rape in the country, when official records put this figure at 6 per cent. It is of grave concern that a ministry mandated to protect children deliberately misinformed the public to justify their severe punishment.

Observations made by the parliamentary panel merit attention. Hopefully, the government will act on its suggestions to reject the proposed legislation and retain the rehabilitative and reformative approach of the Juvenile Justice Act, 2000. In addition, the government must take steps to strengthen the reformative element in our treatment of offenders. At present, juvenile offenders are sent to remand homes that function more or less like jails. It is important that correctional centres provide young convicts with counseling, a supportive environment, training and opportunities that enable them to become responsible and productive adults.

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