A day after the Supreme Court questioned the blanket immunity given to juvenile delinquents, a Mumbai court on Tuesday sent two minors convicted in the Shakti Mill gang-rape case to a Nashik school for three years to learn "good behaviour".
Like the lone juvenile convict in Delhi's December 16, 2012 gang-rape case, these two minor offenders will roam freely in society after being "reformed". These cases have exposed the shortcomings in the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 that does not permit treating minor offenders on a par with adults for trial and punishment, even in heinous crimes such as rape and murder.
First, this special law does not distinguish between a petty offence and a serious crime. Many western countries try juveniles accused of serious crimes as adults. Second, it hardly leaves any discretion with courts to deal with juveniles involved in heinous crimes. Third, it fails to take into account the present day ground reality i.e. the manifold increase in involvement of juveniles in heinous crimes.
Victims of juvenile crimes often feel cheated by this law. Punishment is the most natural response to crime and the punishment has to be commensurate with the gravity of offence. Justice is all about balancing conflicting rights. Juveniles do have rights and no right thinking person would say all minors should be treated like adults in all manners of crime.
What about victims? The JJ Act appears tilted towards juvenile offenders. It is based on the UN Convention on Child Rights, 1989, which says everybody should be treated as a child up to 18 years. But the Convention also indicates it could be changed if national laws recognise a lower age limit for juveniles. Before the 2000 Act, boys below 16 and girls below 18 were considered juveniles.
One possible change could be prescribing higher punishment for juveniles convicted of heinous crimes or creating a separate category of minors between 16 and 18 years and trying them like adults at least in serious offences. Both the Supreme Court and Woman and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi have suggested re-visiting the law. Let's have a through debate before reaching a conclusion as any change in the law will have serious implications for millions of teenagers in India.