Lowering the juvenile age?
Days after the third anniversary of the December 16 gang-rape, the Delhi High Court on Friday rejected a plea to extend the juvenile convict’s three-year stay in a reform home. As a result, the juvenile convict will walk free on Sunday. Political parties across the board have urged the judiciary to extend the juvenile convict’s stay in a reform home. Last week senior BJP leader Subramanian Swamy had urged the court to not release the juvenile, claiming he had been “radicalised while in the reform home. The Intelligence Bureau had raised suspicion that the convict could have been “radicalised” after being moved in with another juvenile apprehended in connection with the Delhi High Court blast case. Swamy went on to add that it would be dangerous to release him into society. Based on Swamy’s plea, the court has issued notices to the Delhi government and Centre on the matter. The case will be next heard on March 28. The victim’s parents were naturally anguished and shocked at the court’s decision. However, there is little the court could have done. Under the existing law, a minor cannot be sent to jail and the maximum punishment for a delinquent can be three years’ detention in a correctional home. Demands for minors involved in brutal crimes to be tried and punished as adults were raised after the 2012 Delhi gang-rape incident. One of the six convicted in the case was the juvenile, who was a few months short of 18 years of age at the time of the incident.
Earlier this year, the Union Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi had tabled a comprehensive bill that seeks to lower the juvenile age from 18 to 16 for “heinous” offences. Once passed through the Parliament, the proposed law will make it possible for law enforcement agencies to try children between 16 and 18 years under the Indian Penal Code. If they are found guilty of serious crimes, they will lodge them in regular prisons instead of juvenile reform homes. Suffice to say, due to the successive logjams in the Rajya Sabha, there has been no serious discussion on the matter. Despite its many pitfalls, the amended bill does seek to change the current status quo. Even the Justice JS Verma Committee, which was tasked with reforming and invigorating anti-rape law, had noted in its report that, “the (current) Juvenile Justice Act has failed miserably to protect children in the country”. However, when it came to lowering the juvenile age, Justice Verma had expressed serious reservations. “We did consider, however, a general lowering of the juvenile age. The research and the statistics in this area, as well as our own experiences, show that it was not viable. Also, most of the women’s organisations were of the view that it was not desirable. You can’t make a generalisation. The law is for general application and not for a particular case. And at any rate, criminal law can’t be retrospective,” Justice Verma said in an interview to a national daily.
In consonance with Justice Verma’s views, many experts working in the field had argued that housing juveniles with adult criminals will further expose them to crime, instead of discouraging them. Former Supreme Court judge VR Krishna Iyer had once said that adult jails are where young offenders acquire “PhDs in crime”. In addition, those advocating against attempts to lower the age limit quote scientific studies, which reportedly prove that the part of the brain that controls the ability to make decisions and assess risks is not fully developed among juveniles between 16 and 18 years of age. Another point of contention in the amended bill is the very broad definition of a “heinous” offence committed by those between 16 to 18 years of age. Suffice to say, these “heinous” offences include any crime for which the punishment is seven years or more in prison. Therefore, a juvenile between 16 and 18 could be sentenced to seven years in prison for crimes such robbery, which may be committed due to economic constraints. Although the Centre seeks to change the status quo for the right reasons, a lot more public and honest deliberation is required before any changes are made to the age limit.