It would not be wrong to say that the intense focus on the specific segment of crimes by juveniles entered the public discourse in India after the gang rape of a young paramedic on December 16, 2012. This is because one of the key accused in the case was a juvenile and unlike the other accused, who got the death penalty, he was sent to a juvenile home, in accordance with the law. He is slated to be released on December 20, but the Centre has asked for more time from the court. The case also opened a debate on the appropriate age at which young law-breakers should be tried as adults instead of juveniles.
There are some very strong arguments for lowering the age of juveniles from 18 to 16 years for the purpose of taking legal action against them. Crime statistics show an increase of 50.6% — from 25,601 cases in 2005 to 38,586 cases in 2014 — under total cognisable crimes registered against juveniles in conflict with the law. While the spike can be attributed to an increase in better reporting of cases, partly in itself is a huge leap forward, the problem will not go away if we only look at legal solutions and not try to address the social and economic backgrounds that such juveniles come from. A study of the family income of the juveniles apprehended in 2014 showed that around 55.6% came from households with an annual earning of less that Rs 25,000.
While it would be wrong to generalise, children from such backgrounds are prone to indulging in criminal activities because of destabilising factors at home and very little support structure outside it. In most cases, they come from large families with both parents work long hours to make ends meet, leaving the children unattended or with elder siblings. They are often befriended by criminals, who initiate them into the world of crime. While building creches for poor children and education are ways that can help such children keep away from being victims of crimes, especially sexual crimes, or indulging in criminal activities, there is an urgent need to set up a mentoring programme for them. This will equip them with life skills that their families are unable or under-equipped to provide and also handhold them when they face challenges.