The government’s proposal to permit child offenders below 18 years of age to stay with their families with the provision that they observe certain restrictions is a welcome step. We know only too well the abysmal conditions of our juvenile remand homes. It is far healthier for children in conflict with the law to remain with their families until their cases are settled. Juvenile justice in India is a neglected area and it is only recently that a degree of activism has brought into focus the trauma child offenders face once they are incarcerated in remand homes. The children who go into these facilities often emerge as hardened criminals, not reformed citizens. Only last month, a Delhi High Court Bench sought the setting up of another juvenile justice court to address the backlog of cases, over 4,000 at last count. Many of them do not know the charges brought against them and cannot afford legal help. Mostly from the disadvantaged strata of society, there is little hope that these youngsters will ever be able to lead normal lives again.
The fact that they have served time in a remand home militates against them. An uncaring society treats them as criminals well after they have served their sentence. To that end, the suggested amendment to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act really acknowledges the State’s failure to make remand homes the centres of rehabilitation and speedy justice that they were designed to be. Despite India being a signatory to the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child and having a comprehensive juvenile justice act in place, conditions in our remand homes are such that children often face abuse. While the law holds that children should be kept in separate rooms, according to their age and nature of offence, this is never implemented. The snail’s pace at which cases are disposed of makes the experience all the more traumatic. Earlier this year, an NGO reported the case of 30 juvenile offenders in an observation home in Faridkot who were confined for days on end without charges being brought against them. Corrupt inspectors and an apathetic State overlook such cruel practices until some well-meaning NGO or activists rake up the issue.
The number of child offenders is increasing across the world. Children’s protection should be the primary focus of any remand utility. Until that becomes a reality, it is best that juvenile offenders are kept away from hardened criminals and insensitive remand homes. If any rehabilitation has to be done, let it be done in a caring atmosphere and among people that the child feels safe and secure with.