Currently, a person committing a crime and aged less than 18 years is tried under the juvenile justice laws of India. Under these laws, juvenile offenders are put into reformatory homes for three years or until they reach the age of 18. The current law appears to many to be illogical and too simplistic as it does not attach any importance to the degree of the crime. Additionally, reformatory homes are under-staffed, under-financed and suffer from an acute shortage of counsellors. It is popularly believed that children entering these homes get corrupted, rather than reformed.
A debate on juvenile justice laws is raging in India after a 17-year-old boy enticed a woman into a bus and along with five adult friends, raped, and then disembowelled the woman.
There are compelling reasons why the age for punishing juveniles for heinous crimes must be lowered from 18 to 16 years. Scientific journals abound with research articles prove that evolution is an ongoing process. In the Scientific American (Jan 2009), Peter Ward reiterates that not only are humans evolving continuously but the rate of human evolution may have increased. In Science in Africa (Sept 2006), Rebecca Rogers Ackermann, says that future evolution may be possible even in our life time. Sandra Steingraber, in her research paper 'The Falling Age of Puberty in US Girls' outlines how the average age of menarche among US girls has declined steadily.
Humans are maturing faster than before. Our laws must keep pace. Also, a teenager doesn't metamorphose into an adult overnight. Is it fair when a mature teenager on the cusp of legal 'adulthood' commits murder and is then protected by a law rationally meant for more innocent pranks?
Several countries prosecute offenders under 18 years of age. In the juvenile law in the UK there is a provision to try juveniles with exceptionally serious crimes differently, disregarding age as the sole factor. Numerous examples show children 14 years or below who have been convicted for rape and indecent assault as they were found of guilty mind (mens rea). Under the juvenile justice law in the US, for some heinous crimes, a juvenile may be tried as an adult. Out of step with the United Nations' rules calling for the 'least possible use of institutionalisation', China holds more than 60% of juvenile offenders in custody and places only 30% on probation. Other countries are clearly far less lenient with juveniles committing heinous crimes.
There is a strong argument made by child right activists for giving juvenile offenders a 'second chance'. This sounds very reasonable when applied to mild offences but the case is different for grievous crimes.
Numerous offenders let off on parole have indulged in the same heinous acts, including murder, again. The chance to reform cannot and must not be at the expense of innocent citizens especially unsuspecting children. Those advocating 'second chances' for rapists also need to honestly ask themselves whether they would be comfortable rehabilitating them by letting them study in the same school as their children?
It is a concern that crimes are increasingly being committed by youngsters. They have the physical strength and a greater degree of the recklessness required to execute them. Moreover, many hardened adult criminals use youngsters to execute crimes for them, secure in the knowledge that they walk out free from a reformation home in months.
Juvenile crimes in India have escalated from 16,509 in 2001 to 25,125 in 2011 - an increase of 65% in 10 years. The (NCRB) data for 2011 also shows that 64% of all juvenile criminals fall in the age group of 16-18 years.
In the Suryanelli gang rape case, many accused were acquitted on the grounds that consent had been given by the girl. The victim at the time of being raped was 16 years old, and the law states that the age of consent is 18. However, 17-18-year-old rapists are let off with juvenile sentences as they are not deemed old enough to be aware of the consequences of their actions! Juveniles who perform heinous crimes must not be shielded by archaic laws. Maturation proceeds at different rates in human beings and this should be reflected in our legal system when deciding culpability.
Anjali Mehta is an eye surgeon and a commentator on social issues
The views expressed by the author are personal