The Supreme Court asked the NDA government on Monday to re-visit the juvenile justice law and make it more stringent, at least in cases of heinous crimes, saying a message had to be sent that the victim's life was equally important.
Under the existing law, a juvenile convict - anyone under the age of 18 -- is not sent to jail but tried by a board with the maximum punishment being three years in an observation home, a provision that critics say is too lenient for serious offenses.
"A time has come to think of an effective law to deal with the situation. We would request the learned attorney general (Mukul Rohatgi) to bring it to the notice of the concerned authorities so that the relevant provisions under the act can be re-looked, re-scrutinised and re-visited, at least in respect of offences which are heinous in nature," a bench headed by justice Dipak Misra said.
The demand to lower the juvenile age limit to 16 was ignited after the December 16, 2012 gang rape where one of the six assailants was 17 and given three years in a home as opposed to the death penalty for four other offenders. One of the accused killed himself in prison.
The cabinet, however, is now likely to approve amendments in the draft juvenile justice bill on Tuesday, paving the way for trying offenders between 16- 18 years as adults in case of heinous crimes, sources said.
If approved, the landmark changes in the proposed Juvenile Justice(Care & Protection of Children) Bill will mark a massive victory for activists who hit the streets after a string of high-profile rape cases involved juveniles.
They may be sent to jail but won't be given the life sentence or the death penalty with the juvenile justice board deciding if the offenders are to be tried as adults, say changes in the bill piloted by the women and child development ministry.
The SC said it was "extremely difficult" to believe juveniles were unaware of the consequences while committing rape, dacoity and murder and asked the Centre to respond by the first week of May.
"Can it be conceived by any stretch of imagination that the petitioner was not aware of the consequences? Was it a crime committed, if proven, with a mind that was not matured enough?" the apex court said.
The top court noted the number of cases against juveniles had spiked, a statement backed by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), which says juvenile crime rose by 78% in the last decade and the number of rapes jumped by a massive 300%.
But child rights activists have argued changing this section in response to a public outcry over a single case would be a regressive step.
The SC bench was hearing a case where a murder convict challenged a trial court judgment punishing him under the Indian Penal Code and demanded to be tried as a juvenile. The petitioner was one of four people accused of killing a man whose debt he couldn't repay.
The court also wanted the government to re-look at a provision in the juvenile law that allows an accused to raise the plea of being juvenile at any stage, in spite of a conviction by a subordinate court.
The WCD ministry last month rejected the recommendation of a parliamentary standing committee that said juveniles between 16 and 18 years of age who commit heinous crime be treated as adult offenders.