The December 16, 2012, gang rape of a student in Delhi and the involvement of a juvenile in the attack had triggered a ferocious debate on whether the Juvenile Justice Act, 2000, (JJ Act) should be amended to ensure that young offenders involved in heinous crimes are tried in a regular court. On Thursday, MPs in Lok Sabha expressed anguish over rising atrocities against women and children and demanded that juveniles accused of rape be tried like adults.
The December 16 rape accused was tried in a juvenile court last year and sentenced to three years in a reform home while his co-accused got death. As the debate raged on in different platforms, the public mood (knee-jerk reaction, said critics) seemed clear: They wanted the JJ Act amended. There were/are equally vociferous voices against it. The anti-amendment group felt that juvenile offenders need to be protected because there are social/economic reasons that push them to indulge in such offences and what actually needs to be done is improve the conditions of correctional homes, so that they get another chance to live their lives as any other citizen.
But these voices lost out to the public demand and as more criminal cases involving juveniles came to the fore, the latest being the one in south Delhi on Wednesday, the same day the Cabinet decided to amend the Act , empowering juvenile justice boards to decide on whether a juvenile above 16 years involved in heinous crimes such as rape is to be sent to an observation home or tried in a regular court. Coming back to the case, five minors, all school dropouts, were caught on camera stabbing a 19-year-old boy to death in a market.
Juveniles stab youth to death in Delhi, caught on CCTV
While such incidents have started to hit the headlines on a regular basis, the statistics don’t show a huge spurt in juvenile crimes. The National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB’s) reports — ‘Crime in India 2011’ and ‘Crime in India 2012’ — state that the percentage of crimes committed by juveniles as compared to total crimes has not significantly increased between 2001 and 2012. However, the NCRB statistics relating to violent crimes by juveniles against women give a different picture. The 2012 NCRB report records that the total number of rapes committed by juveniles more than doubled from 485 in 2002 to 1,149 in 2011. There is a growing belief in the administrative and police circles that criminal gangs are exploiting the loophole in the existing law and using juveniles to commit crimes. While the government was keen to amend the Act based on these data, the critics say that the amendment is a “misguided attempt at promoting public safety as it based on a flawed reading of the data on juvenile crime”. Worldwide, however, many countries like Britain and France, and some states in the US have separate courts that try juveniles who have committed heinous crimes.
The step to amend the law will definitely pacify the public but the debate will continue as critics are busy pointing out the loopholes. On its part, the government must ensure that every case involving juveniles is handled with utmost legal sensitivity and all State agencies comply with the amendment’s fine print in letter and spirit.