An amendment to the Juvenile Justice Act (JJA) has been introduced, where the juveniles in the age range of 16-18 years shall be treated as adults in prosecuting them for heinous crimes. In the cases of Delhi gang rape and Shakti Mills gang rape, juveniles in the age group of 16-18 years were involved in committing the crime and this became the reason why such an amendment to the JJA is being mooted. Before venturing into the merits (or de-merits) of such an amendment, let us take a closer look at the purpose of JJA itself.
The JJA deals with the children (below 18 years of age) in conflict with the law. Its agenda is not to treat such children as adults and instead provide them assistance to integrate them back into the society and protect them from being tagged as “life long criminals”. This is just since their maturity levels are not high, which is why this treatment is also endorsed by UNICEF and other such international conventions.
The proposed amendment to the JJA, which tries to create a new category of 16-18 years old who shall be treated as adults in cases of heinous crimes, is however a back step. The public outrage in the Delhi gang rape and Shakti Mills rape cases against the juveniles who committed the rape is understandable. But serious changes to the laws cannot be made on such cases alone. It needs a scientific study of the cases where the juveniles have committed such heinous crimes. Some time ago, there was an interesting survey done by “The Hindu” about juveniles involved in cases of rape, based on the data of National Crime Records Bureau. It has been found that the proportion of juveniles committing such crimes is minuscule (about 1.2%). And even in such a small portion of the cases, most of them deal with the cases of juvenile elopements, where the parents of an under-18 girl file the cases of rape and abduction against an under 18 boy, whom the girl eloped with. And in the remaining portion where the juveniles did commit the heinous crime (like Delhi gang rape case and Shakti Mills gang rape case), the “bad” influence of the adult peers who make them party to these crimes can not be ruled out, although their actions can never be justified.
It is being said that several developed countries like USA and UK already treat their juveniles as adults in cases of heinous crimes. But it will be unfair to compare India’s case with that of the west, because the socio-economic opportunities that Indian children get are much less compared to that of the west. As a result we can not expect the children of India to have the same maturity and educational levels as those of the west. In that sense, our society should be blamed to some extent for not being able to foment strong ethical and moral values in our children. Also, there is no scientific evidence that such treatment did bring down the crime rates in the west.
Of course, under no grounds can the rape committed by anyone, even a juvenile, be justified and pardoned. But the question really is should the juveniles be treated as adults and be subjected to life imprisonment or capital punishment for a crime that they made with a premature mind. On the other hand they must also not be released after a few counselling sessions because they might pose a further threat to the society, as if not properly counselled they may end up committing the same crime again. So what we need is a middle ground. They must be subjected to some form of education and counselling program, with adequate stress on vocational training so that they are released back into the society only as reformed persons. It may be more appropriate to consider constituting a committee of sociologists, criminal psychologists and legal experts to make proper recommendations on dealing with juveniles committing heinous crimes. The costs involved in this exercise are completely justified as it is the duty of the society and the state to take adequate care of its children.