The sentencing of the juvenile in 16 December Delhi gang rape case has admittedly sparked a major debate on rising adolescent delinquency and how to deal with it. The three-year sentence to the juvenile offender has disappointed many, particularly the victim’s family, that had demanded harsher punishment. But the sentencing has its base in solid grounds, and despite the possible appeal against it a higher court, it would do well to delve into the reasons that prompted the Juvenile Justice Board to limit the sentence to three years. It is worth mentioning that earlier this month, the Supreme Court had admitted a petition that sought a re-interpretation of the definition of a ‘juvenile’, citing intellectual and mental maturity, instead of looking at just the age as a measure of societal expectations of understanding. While the apex court had earlier dismissed petitions that sought to decrease the juvenile age from 18 to 16, the admitting of the new petition indicates it is indeed time to debate not only why juvenile delinquency has gone up in the country, but also what is meant by being a juvenile under the impartial eyes of law.
While the family of the 16 December gang rape victim is absolutely within its rights to appeal against the decision of the Juvenile Justice Board, questioning its constitutionality is certainly not the way to go. Moreover, instead of lowering the age of the juvenile from 18 to 16, what needs to focused upon is how to improve the appalling conditions in the country’s juvenile homes, which are rampant breeding grounds of crime and immorality. In the light of the poor conditions of these shelter homes, it is not fair to single out the juvenile as the new ‘folk devil’ and brand him, particularly if he comes from an underprivileged class, caste and belongs to a minority religion, as potentially delinquent. Clearly, individual cases must not become the yardstick by which we would measure the crimes, real or imagined, of poor teenagers, who are no more and no less transgressive than their upper class, caste cousins.