The lone juvenile convict in the December 16 gang rape case is all set to be released on December 15 after being “reformed” even as his four adult accomplices await the Supreme Court’s decision on their appeal against death penalty given to them.
This is not an isolated case where a juvenile guilty of a heinous crime such as rape and murder has benefited from benevolent provisions of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 that does not permit treating minor offenders on a par with adults for trial and punishment.
In July 2014, a Mumbai court sent two minors convicted in the Shakti Mill gang-rape case to a Nashik school for three years to learn “good behaviour”. There are many more such cases.
But the JJ Act, 2000 treats them with kid gloves. It does not distinguish between a petty offence and a serious crime. Many western countries try juveniles accused of serious crimes as adults.
But Indian law hardly fails to take into account the present day ground reality.
The fact is that juvenile crime graph is rising at an alarming rate. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 48,230 juveniles were apprehended for various offences during 2014.
Of these 36,138 were in the age group of 16-18 years. Of the total 2,144 juveniles allegedly involved in rape, 1,488 were in the age group of 16-18 years. Similarly, of the 1,163 juveniles accused of murder, 844 belonged to 16-18 years age group.
Victims of juvenile crimes often feel cheated. Juveniles do have rights and no right thinking person would say all minors should be treated like adults in all manners of crime.
What about victims? The JJ Act appears tilted towards juvenile offenders. It is based on the UN Convention on Child Rights, 1989, which says everybody should be treated as a child up to 18 years. But the Convention indicates it could be changed if national laws recognise a lower age limit for juveniles. Before the 2000 Act, boys below 16 and girls below 18 were considered juveniles.
Noting that involvement of juveniles in heinous crimes such as murder and rape was increasing, the SC on April 6, 2015 asked the Centre to take a re-look at the juvenile law and make it more deterrent at least in respect of grave offences. A message has to be sent that the victim’s life was equally important under the rule of law, it had said.
Justice is all about balancing conflicting rights. One possible solution could be prescribing higher punishment for juveniles convicted of heinous crimes or creating a separate category of minors between 16 and 18 years and trying them like adults at least in serious offences.