There has been much debate in the country over juvenile offenders and the leniency with which they should be treated by law. The ghastly December 16 Delhi gangrape of a paramedic, followed by the gangrape of a female jourlist in an abandoned textile mill in Mumbai, brought this sensitive issue into the public sphere. In both these cases, the juvenile offenders reportedly played diabolic roles, perpetrating unspeakable atrocities on their victims. As per the existing law, their identities were kept secret as they were tried separately by a juvenile justice board, and after serving time at correctiol homes for a maximum three years, they will be out again. Understandably there is much public misgivings over the scope for reform of such offenders, who have shown such crimil depravity at a tender age. If they are let loose on an unsuspecting society, what is the guarantee they will they not commit such crimes again? Does not society have a right to know the identities of such crimils and take measures to protect itself? These are some of the troubling questions agitating the minds of many.
This debate is likely to grow more intense in the coming days with the Central government on Thursday moving the Juvenile Justice Amendment Bill in the Lok Sabha that will allow children who are 16 years and above to be tried as adults in heinous crimes like rape and murder. Intended to replace the existing Juvenile Justice Act, 2000, the amended Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill 2014 proposes to put the onus upon the Juvenile Justice Board, which will consist of psychologists and social experts, to assess if the crime in question was committed as a ‘child’ or as an ‘adult’, and the trial will be conducted accordingly. The problem is that crimes by juveniles in the age group of 16-18 years have increased sharply, especially in certain categories of heinous crimes, as shown by recent data from the tiol Crime Records Bureau. Take murder, for instance. The number of cases of juveniles committing murder has nearly doubled from 531 in 2002 to 1,007 in 2013. As for rape, the picture is worse with cases nearly quadrupling from 485 cases in 2002 to 1,884 in 2013. Interestingly, around two-thirds of juvenile crimes are committed by those in the age 16-18 years.
In the light of such an alarming trend, the battle-lines are getting sharply drawn with Congress MP Shashi Tharoor commenting in the Lok Sabha that most children in conflict with law ‘come from illiterate and poor families, whom the government is trying to punish instead of giving them education’, and Union Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi retorting that ‘poverty cannot be used as an excuse to commit such crimes’. However, with even the Supreme Court earlier asking the Union government to review the Juvenile Justice Act to prevent juveniles from getting away lightly in case of serious crimes, the Union cabinet this month decided to make changes in the law. A section of legal experts are now criticising this proposed legislation for seeking to hand out ‘retributive justice instead of juvenile justice’; that harsh punishment cannot be a deterrent but will instead turn juvenile offenders into hardcore crimils. Others are calling for juvenile offenders to be tried only by a special court, not to incarcerate them with adult offenders, to take into consideration every juvenile’s maturity, to consider early release of juveniles if there is evidence they can be reformed, to identify juveniles who could commit heinous crimes and undertake special programmes for them, including mental health treatment. It is clear that the rights of a juvenile and the interests of society need to be balanced, however difficult it may be in striking the right balance.