The December 16 gangrape had long shadows. The involvement of a 17-year-old in the brutal crime, for instance, led to demands for toughening the law on juvenile offenders, and the government finally seems to have answered the baying of an illiberal crowd. On Wednesday, the Union cabinet cleared amendments to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act which would let young people aged between 16 and 18 years, and accused of heinous crimes, be tried under laws for adults. The Juvenile Justice Board is empowered to assess whether the offence had been committed as a “child” or as an “adult”.
The recent bout of alarmism over juvenile crime is not borne out by facts, with which Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi seems to have a tenuous relationship. Last year, while justifying more stringent laws, Gandhi had said that, according to the police, 50 per cent of all sexual crimes were committed by 16-year-olds “who know the Juvenile Justice Act so they can do it”. Yet National Crime Records Bureau data show that in 2013, juveniles were charged with only 3.4 per cent of the rapes registered in India. There is also no evidence to show that harsher laws will lead to fewer crimes — young adults emerging from prison would have lost crucial years of their lives and careers, and may well be driven back to crime.
As Parliament debates the amendment, set to be tabled this session, it must answer this question: what kind of justice system should our laws and processes help create? Is it to be a punitive system, built on ideas of retribution? Or should it be more reformative, with measured paces of justice and institutions that are able to help offenders back to the mainstream? Its decision will affect the lives and fortunes of the most vulnerable members of society.