A new juvenile justice Bill that allows 16 to 18 years old, accused of heinous offences, to be tried as adults was passed by the Rajya Sabha Tuesday after the main Opposition Congress changed its stance and backed the ruling BJP. This paved the way for a new juvenile justice system in which the age of criminal culpability will now be 16 years, subject to some conditions.
The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2015 that will replace the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 states that any person aged between 16 and 18 years and accused of a heinous offence — defined as a crime for which there is a sentence of seven years or more under the Indian Penal Code — may be tried under the IPC and not the JJ Act if, after a preliminary inquiry, the Juvenile Justice Board feels that the crime was committed with full knowledge and understanding of the consequences. The Bill also lays down adoption norms.
The Bill was passed by a voice vote with Left parties staging a walkout after CPM member Sitaram Yechury’s plea that the Bill be sent to a Select Committee was turned down by Deputy Chairman P J Kurien on the ground that none of the amendments to that effect had been moved. Two notices for sending the Bill to the Select Committee had earlier been submitted by Shantaram Naik of Congress and Derek O’Brien of Trinamool Congress.
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Barely two weeks ago, MPs from several political parties, including Congress and Trinamool Congress, had written to Rajya Sabha Chairman Hamid Ansari, urging him to send the Bill to a Select Committee. But the protests over the release of the juvenile convicted in the December 16 Delhi gangrape case, who was six months short of adulthood when he committed the crime in 2012, made the parties reluctant to be seen as blocking the new law.
During the debate in the House Tuesday, several MPs mentioned that the law cannot be applied retrospectively and, therefore, whether it was passed now or a few months later after closer scrutiny by a Select Committee, it would have no bearing on the fate of the Delhi gangrape case juvenile convict, now 20.
Even though Congress supported the Bill, individual members like Viplove Thakur and M V Rajeev Gowda — the latter was a member of the Standing Committee that rejected the provision of revising the age of juvenility — made impassioned pleas against a knee-jerk amendment to the law that most legal experts have maintained will end up with very high rates of recidivism.
The new law comes at a time when there are concerns that the decision to reduce the age of juvenility will lead to misuse. Provisions of the new law have been rejected by a Parliamentary Standing Committee, the three-member committee headed by former Chief Justice of India Justice J S Verma, and among others the vice-chancellors of law universities.
Parties other than the Left which pushed for the Bill to be sent to the Select Committee included the DMK and NCP apart from nominated members like Anu Aga.
DMK’s Kanimozhi read the account of a juvenile convicted in trafficking to make the point that such a blanket revision of immunity would end up victimising children who are already suffering.
NCP’s Vandana Chavan wanted to know what was the need for India to adopt a system in the United States for transferring children to the adult justice system when it was widely perceived as a failed system.
“We have to realise that a legal system cannot and do not stand on emotion. It has to stand on reason. While enacting laws in our country, we have always upheld prudence and scientific temper. There has been an argument that if you are old enough to rape, you are old enough to be hanged and I feel this is absolutely wrong… scientific studies on the adolescent brain and psychology totally contradict the presumption that juvenile engaged in crimes such as rape and murder are more mature and, therefore, should be treated as adults,” Chavan said.
Speaking in favour of the Bill, senior advocate K T S Tulsi pointed out that jurisprudence the world over was moving towards a lowering of age.
“In England and Wales, for several offences, children above the age of 10 are held to be criminally liable. In Australia, the prescribed age is 14-18 years for children to be responsible for their actions under criminal law. In the United States, many states have the age of 12 years for holding children responsible for criminal acts. In New York and Texas, the age is 17 years. In Bangladesh, it is 16 years and in Denmark, it is 15 years. And psychologists now feel that the children are grown-ups by the age of 14, responsible for their actions,” Tulsi said.
In her speech, Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi pointed out that there were enough provisions in the law to ensure that it was not misused.
She gave examples of recent gruesome crimes and of her own driver whose car was stolen by a juvenile to underline the importance of passing the new law.
“Please speak to policemen, they will tell you that every other day, juveniles walk into the police station and confess to crimes of all manner and say ‘mujhe JJ mein daal do (send me to JJ Board)’. They do not know what to do with these people,” Gandhi said, urging members to take into mind the “sentiments of the nation” and pass the new law.
Satyarthi hails passing of Bill
Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi hailed the passing of the Bill as a major legislative reform measure. “Whether it’s a crime by a child or on a child, the focus has to be on reform and restitution and not just deterrence. Care and protection must be provided to all children up to the age of 18. We welcome that no child below the age of 18 will go to jail and instead be sent to a special place of safety till the age of 21,” he said. He added that the protection framework provided under this law is extremely robust.