Of the six men accused of raping and brutally assaulting the 23-year-old woman, one of them turned out to be a juvenile, making him ineligible to be tried with the others but raising questions about what needs to be done to curb the rising number of crimes committed by teenagers.
According to the police, Ankur (name changed to protect identity), who worked at odd jobs at eateries in Delhi before becoming a helper for a white line bus, was the one who asked the couple to board the bus and got involved in one of the most gruesome gangrapes witnessed in the recent history of crime in India.
While Ankur will be tried in a juvenile court, experts say that the implementation of Juvenile Justice (JJ) Act- meant to prevent juvenile delinquency and reform offenders such as Ankur- falls way below expectations.
On paper, JJ Act mandates the operation of observation homes, child welfare committees and juvenile justice boards. But, on ground, “the Act has been made a mockery,” the Supreme Court observed in 2010.
More than 850 juveniles were booked for their alleged involvement in rape cases in 2010, up from 399 in 2001.
Kidnapping and abduction cases against juveniles witnessed a rise from 79 to 391 in the same time period. Crimes committed by juvenile suspects was 1.1 per cent of total crime in the country in 2011.
"We wake up reacting when we see children ending up doing something horrible. The question we should be asking is: What are we doing about juvenile crime prevention?" said Anant Asthana, lawyer and child rights activist.
Among the many lacunae in the implementation of JJ Act is the absence of a dedicated police unit for juveniles, he said.
“Delhi Police did not obey the circular issued by the police commissioner on juvenile police officers who would work exclusively on juvenile issues. Secondly, Delhi government has not set up district child protection units in all districts, which are mandated under the law to reach out to such children and their families,” Asthana said.
Probation units is another problem area. Under law probation units in JJ Boards (JJB) will have probation officers who act as an additional guardian of the juvenile offender and are responsible for restoration of the child.
“However, in practice the probation unit working with JJ Board 1 (JJB) is almost dead. No probation officer in any matter has come up with a rehabilitation plan of a child or has given insight to the Board on the needs of any juvenile. The probation unit thus is not doing the work that the Acts expects from and requires it to do and is as such a complete disappointment,” observed the principal magistrate of JJB 1 (one of the juvenile courts in the national capital) about the functioning of probation officers in an order in March 2011.
A study done by the Department of Community Medicine, Maulana Azad Medical College, Delhi, and Prayas observation home for boys highlighted “a strong positive association between drug use and crime in adolescents.” Based on interviews of the staff of an observation home in Delhi, researchers found that the prevalence of any drug use among the boys before coming to the observation home was between 60- 70 per cent.
“In order to purchase drugs, boys indulged in shoplifting, gambling, pick- pocketing, burglaries and even murder. Thus, drug use led to other criminal activities,” noted the study.
However, it appears that the government has not acknowledged the drug- crime link among juveniles. The country’s only government drug de-addiction and rehabilitation centre for juveniles became operational in Delhi in 2011 after rejoinders from Delhi High Court.
“Drug use and sexual assault are common with street kids. Many of these boys have their own cult. Among their peers, they boast about having more than one girl friend,” said Dr Rajesh Kumar, executive director, Society for Promotion of Youth & Masses, which runs the centre in North Delhi.
On our preparedness to curb substance abuse in juveniles, Dr Kumar said, “We are not prepared to tackle issues as complex as drug use among juveniles in conflict with law. Such cases (Delhi gang rape) are warnings that we need to act.”
For better clarity and to bring maximum number if children under the ambit of the system, JJ Act (Central Model Rules 2009) mandates that the state government, JJB, child welfare committee, other competent authorities and agencies ensure that every person, school or other educational institutions abide by the guidelines issued from time to time by state and central government. But neither states nor Centre have formed guidelines. Hearing a public interest litigation filed by Delhi based NGO HAQ centre for child rights, Delhi High Court, in October 2012, asked the Centre and Delhi government to submit a status update on framing of these guidelines.
Conceding that the implementation of JJ Act leaves much to be desired, Bharti Ali of HAQ said that only systemic corrections will not help in containing juvenile delinquencies.
“Giving a child in conflict with the law a choice between being in an institutional facility or outside, is actually no choice at all as both suffer from ills that defeat the ends of justice and reform. Work is required at both ends. It is like making a choice between treating crime or criminal, when you need to work on both,” Ali said.