After months of debate on whether juveniles accused of heinous crimes like rape and murder should be tried as adults, the government, it seems, has finally come around to the view that the issue of graded punishment should be considered. According to news reports, the women and child development ministry, after discussions, has agreed to the view that juveniles who are between 16-18 years committing heinous crimes should not be protected under the Juvenile Justice Act (JJA).
This change of heart has probably come because of two reasons. First, after the juvenile accused in the December 16 gang rape in Delhi managed to avoid the death penalty thanks to the accused being a few months short of 18 years, there has been a strong demand from the public to change the JJA. Second, two other recent rape cases, one in Mumbai and one in Assam, both committed by juveniles, only strengthened the case for revising the JJA. In India, the maximum punishment for a juvenile is three years, irrespective of the gravity of the crime.
When the debate on the issue had started after the December 16 gang rape, a senior Supreme Court lawyer wrote in HT that the watertight provisions of the JJA regarding the age of an offender is a “glaring loophole” in the law. This assessment is correct: India is among the very few countries to have 18 as the age of criminal responsibility. In Britain, anybody above 17 is an adult and separate youth courts try people under 18. A person under 17 can be tried as an adult in a limited number of serious offences like sexual assault, child sex offences committed by children, sexual activity with a child family member. In the US, there are special juvenile courts to deal with under-18 delinquents. India’s crime data records also back up the ‘revise JJA’ demand. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in the last five years, the number of juveniles arrested for murder has doubled while those booked for rape has increased by over 7.5 times. During this period, rapes by juveniles have increased by 188%, thefts and robberies by about 200% and abduction of women by 660%. In 2007, 52 juveniles were arrested for murder and 20 for rape. The numbers rose to 111 for murder and 152 for rape in 2011.
Will such crimes by juveniles stop if the government changes the JJA? There is no guarantee, but it could act as a deterrent. At the very least, the JJA will not be used again to shield those who are juveniles in age, but act otherwise.