The Supreme Court on Monday questioned the blanket immunity enjoyed by underage offenders guilty of serious crimes such as rape and murder and asked the government to consider reviewing the law.
The court’s suggestion for a relook at the juvenile justice act came a day after women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi favoured treating underage accused of ‘heinous crimes’ on par with adults.
Government data show involvement of juveniles — aged between 16 and 18 — in serious crime has risen by 65% in the last one decade.
“You can’t have a cut-off date for crime” like you have for government jobs, the court said. “Go by how the neurons are growing,” a bench of justice Dipak Misra and justice V Gopal Gowda said.
The JJ act, which sets three years in a reform home as the maximum punishment for offenders under the age of 18, has been under attack after December 16, 2012, gang-rape of the 23-year-old paramedic in a moving bus in Delhi. One of the six accused was found to be underage.
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In March, the court had dismissed a plea filed by the victim’s parents asking it to treat the juvenile offender as an adult. The boy, who is in a reform home, turned 18 barely six months after the crime.
The court said the government allows an 18-year-old to be a voter, mature enough to choose the government. “Keeping this in view, how can a person be exonerated of offences such as rape, murder or under the narcotics law?” it asked. A juvenile doesn’t mature in a day to take decisions, the court told attorney general Mukul Rohatgi. It sought the Centre’s response by September 9.
Having twice dismissed petitions for lowering the age bar, the court Monday reopened the debate over the contentious JJ act seen as lenient by many.
From 465 cases of murder registered against minors in 2003, the figure grew to 1,007 in 2013, a 116.6% jump, the National Crime Records Bureau data show. In 2013, 1,884 juveniles were accused of rape against 466 in 2003, a massive rise of 304.3%. Cases of kidnap, robbery and auto theft, too, have recorded a big rise.
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The court was hearing CBI appeal against a Calcutta high court verdict that declared one of the accused in a murder case a juvenile on the basis of school certificate.
Defending the JJ act, the AG argued that India was following the UN convention on child rights of which it was a signatory. “The US and Canada do not follow this. But, don’t ask us to follow those countries that are not following the convention,” Rohatgi said. The convention identifies those below 18 as juveniles.
The court countered, “We need to see our constitutional framework and the laws.” It said “if an accused has right to liberty, so does the victim. Let us not be oblivious to the crime that takes place”.
The court asked government to look at possible changes in the rules, if not the law. “There are rules such as school certificate to determine the age of a juvenile. We can probably take a re-look at them.”