The amended Juvenile Justice Act is a message for several sections of society. If each one of them appreciates this, society will be safer. And we will have more responsible generations. Our children will not suffer. Nor will society at large, as it does, when such brutal gangrapes happen. It puts India to shame. It hits our dignity most. We all feel embarrassed when asked these questions by media overseas.
The objective of the amended Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2015, passed by Parliament is a collective reform and restoration even if it takes the route of stiff punishment for certain adult crimes committed by juveniles or children below 18.
Law, when inadequately understood, undermines the effort of all those who may be correctly investing in the objectives and implementation of law. Let’s briefly understand what the law says after the amendments passed by Parliament in the last few days.
Most importantly, juveniles committing heinous crimes such as rape and murder and who are between 16 and 18 years can now be tried as adults if the Juvenile Justice Board after due deliberations comes to this assessment. The Board will comprise a metropolitan magistrate and two eminent social workers actively involved in health, education or welfare activities for at least seven years or practising professionals with a degree in child psychology, psychiatry, sociology or law. The emphasis is on professionals with experience. They will collectively decide on a case-to-case basis, unlike the situation before, where there was no option and no discretion as is the case in several Western countries.
That is why the juvenile rapist in Nirbhaya case, who was months shy of 18, escaped jail and stiff punishment while his co-accused were lodged in jail.
Sustained public pressure
It is the sustained public pressure and outcry led by Nirbhaya’s parents that compelled a stalled Rajya Sabha to debate and pass the law in a single day. This changed the law. Now if a juvenile in the age of 16-18 commits rape or murder or another heinous offence, the Juvenile Justice Board will take a call if he needs to be sent to jail or a correctional home. On conviction under the new law, the juvenile can be convicted for up to seven years, unlike the earlier maximum stay of three years in a correctional home.
Besides the option of the juvenile of 16-18 being tried for adult crime, the other improvement in the new law is the considerable involvement of organised and volunteering community. Trained and qualified community workers can be co-opted at all stages of work. It now depends on the willingness of the public officials in the Juvenile Justice management system. It will have to be self-desired and not compulsorily externally driven by visitors’ report or social auditors. The law gives due recognition to their association, during and after the processes of dealing with crime prevention, reform and rehabilitation.
Principle of family responsibility, too, has been brought about, which is a good thing. It has been stated, “It’s the primary duty of families to care, to nurture, and protect the child whether they be the biological parents or adoptive or foster.” This means we need to pass on this awareness to families and explain to them that they cannot just keep their sons loose...meaning thereby boys without rules of discipline, acquiring bad habits, missing from homes without parents knowing their whereabouts, drinking away, dropping out of school, abusing drugs, and being vagabonds.
The law also asks for all resources to be mobilised, including those of family and community, for promoting the well-being, facilitating development of identity and providing an inclusive and enabling environment to reduce vulnerabilities of children and the need for intervention under this Act. This leaves out no one -- the school teacher, community pradhan, neighbourhood watch group, neighbours, community NGOs and more....this is one of the many principles set out for care and protection of children.
Hence, the new law is not only about lowering the age of the juvenile, where he could be sent to jail by the Juvenile Justice Board, but also places the responsibility of prevention on families and the community as a whole. This means reformation homes must associate community volunteers in bringing about reformation while they are inside correctional homes and not keep such valuable volunteers away.
As the tendency of public servants is to say that they don’t have resources and cannot provide all this, the law clearly says to seek out, collaborate and follow the participatory model. Something of the kind was done in abundance to make Tihar Jail an ashram from 1993-95. This collaboration will also provide the much-needed transparency to such institutions.
The Bill/Act mentions the reformative requirements for child development for times ahead. It’s in step with the changing social realities. This is where the new law has made a significant break from the past. Most of all, it mandates induction and refresher training for all, be it magistrates, social workers, police officers and all other experts engaged.
Implementation and willingness to serve is the key as dealing with such children is no child’s play.
(The writer is a former IPS officer who runs the NGO Navjyoti Foundation)