The Arvind Kejriwal government and Delhi Police are rarely on the same page. But last week, after a brutal rape of a toddler allegedly by two teenagers in west Delhi, they were in agreement.
The situation was emotive. After meeting the toddler’s family, Kejriwal called for minors over 15 committing rapes and murders to be tried as adults. Delhi Police commissioner Bhim Sain Bassi agreed, but to 16 years as the cut-off age.
In May, the Lok Sabha passed the Juvenile Justice Bill, 2014, seeking to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 in cases of heinous crimes. It is now pending with the Rajya Sabha. The demand for trying adolescents involved in rapes as adults has become stronger since the fatal gang rape of a paramedic student on December 16, 2012. One of the convicts, a 17-year-old, was sent to a reformatory for three years by a juvenile court. Many felt he was let off too easily. But the Supreme Court rejected a batch of petitions challenging the age bar set for trying juvenile offenders in 2013. “The essence of the Act is restorative not retributive… integrating the child in conflict with law into the mainstream society,” observed the apex court.
The Juvenile Justice Act in its current form was enacted in 2000, relaxing the age bar from 16 to 18 years in consonance with the UN Convention on Child Rights. However, mainstreaming potential minor delinquents has emerged as a major challenge. Children in conflict with law are most often poor, school drop-outs, and come from broken homes. The system fails them early in life.
This June, the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights released a report after interviewing 182 inmates at city’s reformatories. The average age of the children in these centres was 16 years. Of the 54 children lodged for heinous crime (33 for murder and 21 for rape), 44 (25 and 17, respectively) were not studying at the time of their apprehension. Eleven had never been to school. At least 14% of the 182 were not living with their parents and 23% were living with either single parent or with step parents. Only about 16% of the parents inquired about the whereabouts of their children. Also, at least 57% of the kids came from violent neighbourhoods.
There are enough provisions mandated in the Juvenile Justice Act to provide safety net to such vulnerable children. Through their Special Juvenile Justice Unit, for instance, police and the government have to identify such children and collaborate with the local community to rehabilitate them. So far, their role has been restricted to perfunctory meetings.
Some reform homes that have facilities for vocational training offer classes in tailoring, cooking and plumbing, to prepare the children for the world outside. But the kids show little interest. Brawls, drug abuse and blade attacks are common, which the authorities insist can only be controlled by punitive action that they are not allowed to take. In company of repeat offenders, younger kids usually end up as hardened criminals. Once out of detention homes, authorities rarely bother to find out where these children go.
In the 1990s, the United States started charging minors as adults when the cases of youth crime went up. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of juveniles in adult jails went up by 230%, reported the Economist (March, 2015). It shot up the cost of incarceration and tended to turn young delinquents into serious criminals, the report said. According to the US Centre for Disease Control, young people who are charged as adults were nearly 35% likelier to be rearrested than those who are tried as juveniles.
Since 2005 though, 29 states plus Washington, DC have passed laws to make it harder to prosecute juveniles as adults. Instead of expelling or arresting rowdy pupils, several school districts in Connecticut now offer mental-health treatment, the Economist reported.
Often the gruesome nature of a crime such as rape or murder makes it impossible to imagine the young accused as children. The apex court and Parliament can decide if the psychological maturity of minor offenders should determine culpability. Either way, we may not be any safer without reforming the reformation system.