The prospect of the youngest offender in the Delhi gang rape case walking free has stirred public opinion in recent weeks, with a string of protests and the parents of the victim urging authorities to detain the convict.
Parliament is expected to take up amendments to the juvenile justice bill on Tuesday, a rare political response to public anger over the case, but the outrage has helped mask two crucial aspects of the case.
One, that the convict could not have been detained any further under existing laws. The maximum punishment for a juvenile is three years and putting him behind bars after he has finished serving his legal sentence to satiate public outrage is the mark of a banana republic. A mature republic cannot rely on public opinion - that too, of a particular class of urban citizens - to frame its laws and tinker with punishments as they please.
Two, that the demand to lower the juvenile age is not grounded in facts. Proponents of a harsher juvenile bill often point to a spike in underage crime but contrary to popular opinion, there has been no such explosion. Juvenile crime may have increased in recent years but it is proportional to a general increase in crime across the country. Data by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows the rate of juvenile crime as compared to overall crime has hovered between 1 and 1.2% over the past decade.
Moreover, an analysis by IndiaSpend shows a mere 1% of murders and 3% of rapes were committed by 16-18 year olds. The percentage of repeat offenders has also reduced in the past five years - from 12.1% to 5.4%. NCRB data shows the percentage of people arrested in 2014, who had three prior arrests to their name, stood at a negligible 0.3%.
All this point to the fact that India’s robust juvenile system is working, despite popular anger. Any attempt to tinker with the system will hurt the poor and disadvantaged the most, because our juvenile homes aren’t filled with rich, upper caste, urban-educated children - over half of underage convicts are illiterate and come from very poor backgrounds and it is our collective duty to rehabilitate them.
The decision to treat juveniles is based on sound logic - that children aren’t equipped to control impulses and are vulnerable to peer pressure, growing up in depressing poverty, without access to education, health or safety. Juvenile homes are created to reform and make them realise the harm caused by their actions, and pushing them into jails - with their rampant physical, mental and sexual abuse - will only make them into repeat and hardened criminals.
Women’s safety is a noble cause but we must be a little more than just reactionary. Patriarchy is deeply enmeshed in our society, right from the way we treat our babies, the choices available to female students, the hurdles faced by professional women to the challenges of divorced and single mothers.
Our fight for a more women-friendly society cannot be limited to one big case, with convenient silences about the rampant rape and sexual torture meted to lower caste and Adivasi women, the frequent custodial abuse of women by government forces, the rape and murder of transgender persons or the regressive attitudes by many of us in the comfort of our homes.
Rehabilitation has to be the cornerstone of any justice system and we should be proud that as a country, we offer a second chance to those less privileged than us. To push children into jails and a possible life of crime to satiate our collective bloodlust is not just convenient, it is wrong.