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Amendment To Juvenile Act

Updated: September 13, 2014 2:28 pm

In the current circumstances, where crimes are spiralling beyond comprehensible proportions and the under 18 tag is being used as protective shield for brutal crimes, we need to take into account the nature of the crime and not the age of a criminal

The cabinet nod for an amendment to the Juvenile Act which will allow courts to try minors involved in heinous crimes like rape and murder as adults is a welcome step. The last decade has seen a higher incidence of juveniles being involved in such crimes. The repitition of “Nirbhaya’s” case has left the nation aghast. Keeping in view the brutality and unbridled frequency of sex crimes against woman, it is high time India evolved its stand on juvenile offenders.

Clearly, the sort of judicial system that makes a stark differentiation between the quantum of punishment for crimes commited by adults and juveniles needs an unbiased relook. A person who can so savagely execute such a wicked deed without any premeditation is by all considerations aware of what he is doing. In such cases, age should not be used as a parameter to decide whether the person is guilty or innocent. The accused should be punished according to his crime and not his age. It is necessary that any legal defence on age be scrapped ensuring that such offenders do not escape severe punishment on the specious plea of being “juveniles”. How can we put a seal of approval on the offender going almost scot free only on the ground of being under 18 years of age? Voilent juvenile rapists and murderers should be treated as adults in a court of law to ensure that they cannot brutalise and walk away to unleash more terror on society.

In the Delhi gangrape case for instance, the worst perpetrator was allegedly a juvenile offender, just because he was a few days short of 18 when he commited the heinous crime. So the most brutal of culprits escaped with a rap on the knuckles, making a malicious travesty of justice. He got away with a light term of three years in a juvenile home because of an anomaly in the law. His light sentence will now enable this offender to walk free soon and threaten public safety again. The question before everyone is that when a juvenile under 18 years of age is capable of indulging in crimes such as rape and murder, why on earth must he be protected under the Juvenile Justice Act? As long as the age and not the crime is the yardstick that decides the punishment, we will witness several emboldened young marauders torturing women, girls and even infants. No one stands above the law. Equally, no one should be allowed to slip under it. The judiciary must urgently take note of the 2014 Juvenile Bill and move forward in modernising applicable laws. Though, the official crime data do not support the theory that juveniles are responsible for any rise in instances of sexual offences, it can’t be the basis of rejecting the new bill since a number of crimes committed by minors in rural areas are not reported and properly indexed.

Although many are challenging the changes in the Juvenile Justice Act calling them regressive and retrograde, experience around the globe suggests that children are attaining maturity earlier. Hence someone who is a few months short of 18 is well aware of the gravity of a crime he commites. The Delhi gangrape was not an isolated incident. The “juvenile” alibi has also been used by an accused in the Mumbai Shakti Mills gangrape case. There have been reports of older juvenile committing serious offences, even during their stay in juvenile justice homes. There are global precedents of younger offenders tried severely for serious crimes. One of the most well known was the torture and murder of toddler James Bulger in Britain by two ten year olds in 1993. Despite their young age, Britain tried Jon Venables and Robert Thompson as adults. India seems to be the only country where the law on rape does not seem to be evolving. We seem to be living in a primordial era and if a diabolic character is one day short of eighteen years, as per the extant law he is innocent who needs rehabilitation despite the savagory he indulges in with impunity. If the Government wants to send out the message that the society will not tolerate crimes against women, it needs to crack down on the perpetrators. This is only possible when people see the full force of the law, and learn to fear and respect it in equal measure.

The proposed ammendment does not however seek to lower the age from 18 to 16. It relies on the wisdom of Juveline Justice Boards to decide on whether a person in the age group of 16 to 18 involved in a heinous crime should be sent to a reformation home or tried in a regular court. This will serve as an appropriate safeguard. Also, according to the bill, the convicted juveniles may face a jail term but will not be awarded a life sentence or the death penalty. Most importantly, the 2014 Bill seeks to strengthen punishment for crimes against children. It enunciates fresh and comprehensive laws for the care, protection, rehabilitation and justice for children. The Bill piloted by Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi prohibits both corporal punishment and persistent verbal abuse of children. In addition, the Bill seeks to penalise abettors of ragging and regulate adoption to curb child trafficing. This is indeed a landmark step towards punishing the young offenders and protecting the most vulnerable.

While hoping that the amendment will have the desired effect, the government should fulfil its social responsibility of addressing problems such as forced migration, availability of drugs, lack of education and employment opportunities that force young boys to commit such crimes. How a child who needs care and protection falls into the dark abyss of crime is often a stoty of how society has led it down.

There is also a possibilty of the new law being misused by parents to punish consensual sexual relations between young men and women. There are many cases of intercaste, underage marriages in villages. Often the girl’s families file cases of kidnapping and rape against boys. This gives enough reason for police to exploit the boy’s family. There is a dire need for measures to check such misuse.

They say justice delayed is justice denied. And this delay has emboldened many others to perpetrate rapes and destroy girl’s lives. So the government and the judiciary need to wake up and act fast to let the women have trust in the efficacy of law.

By Sunita Vakil

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