A broken system
On Thursday, the Supreme Court granted interim bail to 13 prisoners who have been languishing in jail for periods ranging from 14 to 22 years despite apparently being juveniles at the time of the offence. A bench comprising Justice Indira Banerjee and Justice V Ramasubramanian noted while passing the order for an interim bail: "It is not in dispute that 13 Petitioners have been held by Juvenile Justice Board as juveniles. Let interim bail be granted to them by presenting personal bonds." Representatives for UP stated that while the state had no objections to the granting of interim bail to the 13 prisoners, it did need time to conduct verification and it sought two weeks to file a counter-affidavit. The idea is to verify whether the prisoners were indeed minors when they were first arrested. But advocate Rishi Malhotra who appeared for the petitioners stated that the case was one of illegal detention. His plea stated that in 2012, the Allahabad High Court had held an enquiry to determine the age of the prisoners and that the Juvenile Justice Board had 'categorically' held that the prisoners were juvenile at the time of their arrest. Despite this, the prisoners continued languishing in jail for another decade. Though the petition stated that many of the cases for the prisoners were still pending before the court, they had already more than served the maximum allowed time under the Juvenile Justice Act of three years. When Malhotra had first filed the petition back in June, he had noted that the petitioners had spent years in 'hardcore' jails amongst 'hardcore' prisoners. He stated that this completely defeats the purpose of the Juvenile Justice Act. Facts of this particular case aside, juvenile justice has always been a concerning issue in India. Juveniles frequently end up falling into adult jails when it is decided that they will be charged as adults or when, in certain cases, their age is misrepresented to be that of an adult. There is no reasonable estimate of just how many children across India languish in adult jails today but there are some indications. An RTI query in 2020 revealed that at least 123 prisoners held in Tihar jail had been declared juveniles in the 2019-20 period. It should be noted that this figure was only based on eight of the 16 total jail complexes in Tihar so it is unknown what the full count really was as there is a simple absence of properly maintained data. Most juveniles are unable to produce legal proof of age when they are arrested. In such cases, experts say the police tend to favour declaring the accused to be an adult even if a cursory inspection of physical features can be used to refute the assertion. Whether this is done with a punitive mindset is unknown. Regardless, what cannot be questioned is that condemning a minor to adult jail, no matter how 'heinous' their crime may appear to be, is a sure-shot way of undermining the very concept of juvenile justice. Experts have often held that sending minors to jail not only puts their life and wellbeing in danger, it also likely puts them on track to a life of crime and repeated cycles of jail. The idea of juvenile justice is to break the cycle of criminalisation and prevent juvenile convicts from later on transitioning to full-on criminals. The idea is to pose an intervention that takes them towards becoming productive members of society. But thrown in an adult jail with adult prisoners, a child is faced with sexual abuse, routine violence, exploitation, manipulation, etc., that takes away the chance for redemption. At this point, the idea of juvenile justice becomes meaningless. Even when such juvenile offenders are not put in jails, they are put in special care homes which have often been described by rights organisations as being 'inhumane' in terms of living conditions with its own sordid accusations of uncomfortably frequent sexual exploitation, torture, etc. Overall, it is, as usual, more than welcome for the SC to intercede and bring relief in such cases of injustice as seems to be the case with these 13 convicts. But there is a larger issue of how juvenile justice works in India that must also be addressed as a root cause. Otherwise, this case will continue to be just one of the many tragedies of juvenile justice that are witnessed across the nation.