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The need for a re-look?

The Justice JS Verma Committee report on ‘Amendments to Criminal Law’ had noted that, “the Juvenile Justice Act has failed miserably to protect children in the country”. “We cannot hold a child responsible for a crime, before providing to him/ her the basic rights given to him/ her by the Indian Constitution,” it added. The apex court, however, on Monday urged the government to bring about necessary changes in the juvenile law for greater deterrence, since it was “extremely difficult” to accept that a delinquent under the age of 18 would not be aware of the consequences, while committing crimes like rape and murder.

Under the current act, a juvenile cannot be sent to jail under the existing law 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 a man, who was a few months short of turning 18 years at the time of the incident. A Delhi court had sentenced him to three years in a correctional facility, which sparked angry protests.

Earlier this year, Union Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi had tabled a new and comprehensive bill that seeks to tackle increasing crimes committed by youngsters between 16-18 years of age. Despite its many pitfalls, the bill does seek to change the current status quo. On the other side of the debate, however, many argue that housing juveniles with adult criminals will further expose them to crime, rather than discourage them. In fact, 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 take decisions and assess risks is not fully developed among juveniles between 16 and 18 years of age. Although the apex court 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.
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