They propose, they dispose

After a long debate, the Members of Parliament voted in favour of the Juvenile Justice Bill. The Bill has been passed, but its objective has left many questions unanswered. Confusion still persists as to whether it is a mockery of the law or a message to lawmakers for more stringent measures to prevent minors from indulging in criminal activity? There are several views on the issue even after the amendment.

When we say juvenile, we mean individuals who do not understand the full implications of their actions, and commit acts against the law. The new law provides for a selective system, whereby the juvenile justice board will have the discretionary power transfer a child in the age group of 16 to 18 accused of “heinous” crimes to an adult criminal system for trial and conviction. Statistics available with the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) speak volumes of how juveniles are not only involved in petty thefts, but also commit crimes like snatching, robbery, attempted murder, rape and murder.

According to the NCRB data, cases involving juvenile offenders have gone up by 18%--2,876 minors were tracked down in 1,946 criminal cases registered in 2014. In 2013, the figure was 2,140 against 1,590 cases. Of these, many were sent back home after requisite counselling. Some were released on probation. A few were sent to special homes. However, many have been acquitted, and some cases are still pending. There are instances of some minors who have a “hardened criminal nature” and repeatedly indulge in heinous crimes. Is it not difficult to reform them?

It is definitely a challenge to control juvenile crimes as it is not only linked to law and order but also socioeconomic dynamics. Most minor offenders come from extremely poor households. They start with stealing, and eventually indulge in more serious crimes including robbery, murder, and rape. Many of them go back to their old ways even after getting caught and spending time in juvenile homes. It’s not just the fear of the law that will stop these crimes. There are many other factors that impact a juvenile’s delinquent behaviour. For example, how the child is raised is one such factor. There are many orphans, who do not get proper grooming. Some children are brought up by single parents, while others resort to begging and manual labour from a very early age and do not receive proper attention.

Most juveniles do not have the luxury of a proper education. How do we protect them? They are the most vulnerable members of our society who could be lured into any crime. Is there any system to supervise and monitor them, especially  when they reach adolescence and spend more time with their peers? How will lawmakers view a juvenile, who commits a heinous crime like murder at the age of 12?  If murder and rape are heinous, then what about terrorism? It is strange and surprising that there are so many differences even among our representatives when it comes to matters pertaining to the judicial system.

There is no doubt that children are the future and need our care and protection. It will be an ideal step to fulfil their basic needs through proper care, protection, development, treatment, social re-integration - by adopting a child-friendly approach. However, many have asked, why should all this happen after a child has committed a heinous crime? Why not earlier? Is there any effort for prevention rather than protecting the offenders after an offence is committed? It is a sad reality in India that our law makers wake up after something brutal happens. The juvenile issue became very prominent. The entire system got activated to change the law, to punish children, to protect them only after the Nirbhaya incident. Why do we react only when something major happens? Why can’t there be a robust system to prevent such things?

Unlike 10 or 20 years ago, children today are a lot more exposed to the present socio-cultural environment due to the influence of internet and social media. Therefore, to have a deterring effect it is important that such offenders in the age group of 16 to 18 should be punished as adults so that victims’ could also receive their justice. Why club juveniles with minors? A juvenile is a young criminal offender and the term minor relates to legal status of a person in terms of age. Let us look at the law in other countries. England has the juvenile law till age 18 years, China has 14 to 18, USA has for 13-15 years of age, and some countries do not have an age limit to treat criminals.

In the Parliament, during the debate on the Juvenile Bill, we heard members saying the most wanted criminal Dawood Ibrahim committed his first crime at the age 16 and now is a threat to the nation. Many young terrorists are still in their teens. This shows that criminality can be hard-wired at a young age. If the law becomes soft on minor offenders, will it not encourage other criminals to use the children in committing heinous crime? Many organised crime syndicates deploy children.

It is pertinent to quote the Independence Day speech of the Prime Minister where he emphasised that proper care by family members is the only way to stop rising juvenile crimes. If there is no care at home, how can a juvenile home or less punishment, or counselling help? The new Bill also deals with the adoption of children and lays down the eligibility criteria for adoptive parents. A central adoptive resource agency will frame the rules for adoption, which will be implemented by state and district level agencies. But, the million dollar question is how stringent is India’s adoption law, and how is it being monitored in terms of implementation.

No matter what changes have been brought in the law, justice must prevail and it should be in the interest of the society. The law makers need to look at a different perspective, not make changes influenced by a single incident of cruelty. Therefore, whenever such an issue is debated or any reform planned, it must be clear whether society is to be given a system of justice based on retribution and punishment, or a system that is reformative and assimilative for the juvenile offenders. There has to be a balance of care and protection with punishment. Neither clear emotion nor hardcore punishment should dominate the responsibility towards child offenders.

(The writer is a freelance journalist. Views expressed are strictly personal)
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