The approval given by the Union Cabinet to the proposed changes in the Juvenile Justice Act 2000 (JJA) has stirred up a hornet’s nest. The Union government is being criticised for approving the trial of juveniles (16-18 years) as adults if they are involved in heinous crimes. This is being seen by many as a retrograde step as the objective of taking legal action against juveniles should be their reformation and rehabilitation.
The government, however, appears determined to go ahead with the proposed amendments to the JJ Act. Many feel that the present provisions, which allow for a maximum detention period of three years, are far too lenient.
The latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data show that 66% of juvenile crimes are committed by those in the age 16-18. Furthermore, the NCRB record also reveal that while the number of rapes went up by 67% between 2002 and 2012, those committed by juveniles increased by 137%.
Even the Supreme Court had asked the Union government to revisit the JJ Act and prevent juveniles from getting away lightly in the case of serious crimes. Whatever the final decision on the law, the rights of a child and the interests of society must be balanced. In this regard the following aspects must be considered.
First, the JJ Act should be amended to ensure that juveniles are tried only by a special court.
Second, a juvenile should not be incarcerated with adult offenders.
Third, while awarding a sentence, the issue of diminished criminal responsibility and the juvenile’s maturity should be considered.
Fourth, any decision to try a juvenile as an adult should be approved by a child psychologist.
Fifth, there should be a provision for the early release of juveniles if there is some evidence that they could be reformed. Guidelines should be made for the release of such juveniles.
Sixth, steps should be taken to identify juveniles who could commit heinous crimes and undertake special programmes for them. Several states in the US have introduced innovative programmes like mental health treatment at the school level, resulting in reduced crime rates. The issue of finding a correct balance is not an easy one, but we have to find it.
Swinging drastically to either side could have serious consequences.
George Thomas is a graduate of National Law School, Bangalore, and writes on legal issues
The views expressed by the author are personal