Nothing, said a science fiction writer, is always absolutely so. Yesterday, responding to a question on reducing the age of juveniles from the existing 18 years to 16, Chief Justice of India Altamas Kabir pointed out that only Parliament, and nobody else, could take such a decision. Warning against trial by media, the CJI termed it “a matter of grave concern” and emphasized that cases “should be left to the courts to decide”. He was almost entirely right.
Of course, it is ultimately Parliament’s prerogative which law or amendment it wants to enact. But the media, or any citizens’ group or individual, has every right to lobby for any legal reform it feels necessary. Trial by media in a case, on the other hand, infringes on the exclusive domain of the court. But we also remember quite a few high-profile cases which were reopened only after the media had got into the act. The downside, however, is that media can never follow millions of pending cases and anyway justice should not be seen to be hinging on its preferential intervention.
But the issue of lowering the age of juvenile is a little more complex. There are two principal justifications for according certain legal concessions to an underage person. First, the accused may not be mature enough to fully comprehend the gravity or the consequence of a crime. Secondly, an underage accused is still impressionable and has a far greater chance than an adult to change for the better.
Globally, the age limit for juveniles (read legal maturity) varies from 16 to 18. In a few places, such as Washington, it depends on the nature of the crime. Many argue that juveniles accused of adult crimes – such as murder and rape —should be treated like adults. In England, juvenile courts do not, as a rule, deal with homicide and are free to send cases of rape to the Crown’s Court. Similarly, most states in the USA treat murder as an adult crime and juvenile courts often transfer cases of severe offences committed by juveniles to regular courts.
While certain homicides — killing of an abusive father by an underage son or daughter, for example — can potentially draw our sympathy, rape is always considered too adult a crime to allow any concession for the juvenile accused. Indeed, the USA’s Centre for Sex Offender Management estimated that juveniles were responsible for 20 percent of all rape and 50 percent of all child molestation cases. Globally, several studies indicate a gradual rise in serious crime committed by the adolescent over the last four decades.
We have not invested much thought in understanding what is turning so many of our very young to crime. Instead, involvement of a 16-year-old in a gruesome rape has made many of us demand that the juvenile age be lowered to 16. Will we press a fresh demand tomorrow if a 13-year-old is caught in the act? The question is not hypothetical because 1300 or more than 5 percent of those arrested for rape in the USA in 2006 were under 15 years. Where will we draw the line? Or are we better off demanding different juvenile age-limits for different crimes?
The argument that only a fraction of those coming from poor socio-economic background or troubled homes take to crime, and hence cannot be shown any mercy, may make sense in the context of adult criminals but not juveniles. But our reluctance to address the issues that push so many underage to crime not only undermines the chances of crime prevention but also of subsequent criminal reform.
The preferential treatment of underage offenders is aimed at giving them a chance to reform. Proper handholding and guidance can have that sobering influence on these young ones. Since most of them do not have a family, or a healthy family atmosphere, they can be sent back to, the onus is on the state to provide them education, healthcare and, most importantly, a home-like atmosphere where a community feeling may revive their interest in the positives and possibilities of life.
Instead, underage offenders are dumped at juvenile homes that have become one of the most fertile breeding ground for hardened criminals. It is anybody’s guess how many juvenile delinquents took their first lesson in crime as orphans or runaway or rescued kids in these homes or shelters where they are routinely subject to sexual and other forms of assaults. By which yardstick should we judge their conduct when they manage to escape these hell-holes and return to society? Whatever be the juvenile age, what purpose does that preferential legal treatment serve when these kids are sent back to the same juvenile homes?
Irrespective of what the CJI feels, we have every right to debate and lobby for the best legal provisions that we feel may secure our society. But that does not mean the media can pretend to be delivering justice. That is the job and responsibility of the court. Similarly, the demand for altering the juvenile age may not significantly impact crime rate unless we consider the very purpose of legal concessions to minors. If we can’t give underage offenders a chance to reform, if they are anyway doomed to a lifetime of crime, how does it matter if they are hanged as adults when they are 18 or 14?