At what age does a juvenile become an adult? This debate has taken on a new momentum, particularly after the light sentence given to one of the accused in the December 16 gang rape last year. The parents of the victim have moved the Supreme Court challenging the blanket ban on criminal courts trying a juvenile offender for offences committed under the Indian Penal Code. An apex court Bench has sought the Centre's views as to who will decide the maturity of an offender who is above 16 years and below 18 years and is involved in heinous crimes. As of now, the maximum punishment for a juvenile delinquent, irrespective of the gravity of the crime, is a three-year term in a reformatory home.
The juvenile accused in the December 16 gang rape, who the police claimed was the most brutal of all, will walk free after a while even as the other rapists face the death sentence. Besides this case, the Shakti Mills case and the Guwahati case too involved juveniles. The National Crime Records Bureau figures on juvenile crimes reveal a 143% increase in the number of rapes committed by juveniles from 2002 to 2012. This suggests that there is an urgent need to adopt a graded response to heinous crimes committed by juveniles - wherein the gravity of the crime will decide the punishment. It cannot be ignored that developed countries like Britain, the United States and France have a graded system where a juvenile can be tried as an adult in serious offences like sexual assault.
It is almost one year after the Delhi gang rape. The authorities concerned must use this occasion to revisit the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000. No action must be taken without consulting the stakeholders. This includes the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights and other groups that have expressed apprehensions against the lowering of the age of juveniles. In the same manner that a blanket immunity to juvenile delinquents is questionable, a blanket reduction in the age of a juvenile will have its own repercussions. The debate must also look at reformation and rehabilitation, which are neglected aspects at the moment.