Delhi gangrape: A case against giving harsh punishment to juvenile offenders

The discourse on a stringent law for rapists has instigated a debate on how the law treats juvenile offenders. The case of the lone juvenile among the accused has evoked the passionate demand for treating minors as adults in exceptional acts of crime. The government has joined the chorus with the Ministry of Women and Child Development seeking amendment of the Juvenile Justice Act to that effect. Is it just an emotional response to a complex issue? How wise is the move?

One of the premises of the JJ Act is that the state is responsible for juveniles in conflict with law and those in need of care and protection. The entire gamut of bodies such as child welfare committees, juvenile justice boards, observation homes, child care institutions, juvenile police units are meant to implement the JJ Act, thereby to ensure that the alleged juvenile like the one involved in this case (result of the bone test to establish his age is yet to come) does not spend years on streets.

Protests in Delhi. AFP.

As this article on Firstpost shows, the miniscule, yet disturbing percentage of crimes committed by juveniles indicate the failure of the government to enforce JJ Act. Read here.

for the appalling conditions of child welfare committees and child care institutions respectively. Rather than talking about ways to contain juvenile crimes by making active the child protection mechanism, the government, backed by a battery of lawyers, has suggested stricter punishment for juvenile offender found guilty of heinous crimes.

The second and equally crucial premise of the JJ Act is that juvenile offenders should be given a chance to reform. They are kept in ‘observation homes’ and not prisons so that counsellors, welfare officers and probation officers can work with them and address the reasons which made them commit the crime. The law mandates that once a juvenile enters the system, a probation officer will be deputed as an extra guardian of the offender and he will submit regular follow up reports to the juvenile justice board regarding the progress made by the offender.

Delhi-based Dr Rajesh Kumar, who has worked with minor and adult drug addicts and runs India’s only drug de-addiction centre for juveniles in partnership with the government, says that lesser amount of time and effort goes into rehabilitating juveniles than their adult counterparts. Dr Kumar adds, “A significant percentage of juveniles on streets are used by adults as couriers.”

Therefore, sending juveniles to prison with adults will prove counter productive. Since April last year, the team working with National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, has identified around 200 juveniles in Delhi’s Tihar jail to be shifted to observation homes.

All these convicts who landed up in Tihar because of anomalies in age verification process, narrate how they learnt tricks and methods from hardened criminals during their stint in one of Asia’s largest prisons.

Yes, the crime was barbaric. And it speaks volumes about the psyche of the rape accused, including the alleged juvenile in this case. However, as highlighted in the submission made by eminent child rights experts to Justice Verma Committee, there is a provision in JJ Act for such exceptional cases.

“A perusal of Sections 15 & 16 of the JJ Act shows that there are multiple provisions to take care of the young offenders including three years of institutionalization in a ‘Special Home’ besides special consideration being given in exceptional cases wherein the juvenile can be sent to another kind of ‘Remand Home’ for longer period called ‘place of safety’. During our experience with the Observations and Special Homes which are being run according to the letter and spirit of the law, it has been found that the overwhelming majority of juveniles are not only reformed but they are also productively reintegrated in their families and society,” says the letter.

Those advocating amendments in JJ Act to lower the age of juvenile from 18 to 16, wonder that how can a law treat somebody different the day he or she turns 18. There is a separate law if the age of the accused is 17 years and 364 days and a different mechanism if he attains 18 years, is the criticism. The fact of the matter is that there has to be an age limit to categorise adults and juveniles. And India, in tune with and as a signatory to the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) 1989, defines a child as person up to the age of 18 years, child rights activist have conveyed to Justice Verma Committee.

Quick- fix measures such as tweaking the definition of juvenile or setting a precedent in this case cannot be the solution to an issue as deep rooted and complex like child delinquency.

Updated Date: Jan 05, 2013 17:32 PM

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