Former Chief Justice of India Altamas Kabir rightly said that public sentiments are akin to “baying for blood” of the juvenile accused in the December 16 gang rape and murder case. Describing the incident as “ghastly”, he found the knee-jerk public reaction wrong. Subsequently, giving its verdict with comprehensive reasons on the seven writ petitions challenging the provisions of the Juvenile Justice (Care & Protection of Children) Act, 2000 and demanding the removal of protection to children (up to 18 years) under the law, the Supreme Court refused to interfere with the statute.
However, the sentencing of the juvenile to three years at a reformatory home has reignited the demand for revisiting the laws regarding juvenile delinquency. Perhaps, it is being overlooked that a juvenile accused does not undergo the criminal justice process like an adult, since the Juvenile Justice (JJ) Act, 2000, creates an altogether separate system that has to be confidential and out of the public domain. In the given situation, it is unfair to brand this juvenile as the most ‘brutal’ among the five culprits of the December 16 gang rape case. The other four culprits have the advantage of defending themselves as their evidence is subjected to legal and public scrutiny. In the present case, we have reasons to believe that the evidence against the juvenile was decidedly not more serious than others, and his given portrayal is highly inappropriate.
It is a known fact that this young and vulnerable boy, who is from an extremely poor family, left his home at the age of 10 and since then did odd jobs to survive. He was definitely misled and exploited by many, including the co-accused whom he met that fateful evening by coincidence when he went to demand his hard-earned R8,000.
Moreover, the provisions of the specialised treatment to juveniles are very much similar to the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code (Section 360) under which persons under 21 years of age and first-time offenders are required to be released on probation for good conduct instead of being sentenced. In the same manner, under the JJ Act (Sections 15 and 16), the JJB can pass seven dispositional orders, the last one being detention for three years which may extend beyond the age of 18 years, up to 21 years. There are multiple provisions of after-care programmes, rehabilitation and social-reintegration under the JJ Act which are yet to be invoked. The need of the hour is to implement this internationally acknowledged model law in letter and spirit and not to change it.
In the midst of the media hype and a misdirected public debate, it is being forgotten that Indian children even up to 18 years, are far less criminal in comparison to their counterparts in other countries. While they constitute almost 42% of India’s population, juvenile offenders accounted for just 1% to 1.5% of the total offences during the past decade. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2011 juveniles committed 33,887 crimes as against the total 23,25,575 crimes. Since we often make international comparisons, we need to also highlight that American children with nearly a quarter of our population committed 1,29,456 crimes in 2011. The percentage of juveniles committing serious crimes is negligible, particularly considering our huge population, abject poverty and a society afflicted by a million conflicts in which children suffer the most.
Amod K Kanth is former chairperson, Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights
The views expressed by the author are personal