Updated: October 21, 2015 12:35:26 am
In response to the spate of gender crimes in the capital — particularly the growing prevalence of attacks on minors — the Delhi government has appointed a group of ministers to examine the possibility of amending laws and procedures to contain the menace. Some of the proposals being evaluated are quite sensible, like the establishment of special police stations for registering gender crimes, the last resort if regular police stations fail to respond credibly to complaints. And the rapists of minors should certainly invite the maximum penalty. However, one proposal that has come up is singularly absurd: Since minors are increasingly found to be perpetrators, should the age of criminal responsibility be reduced to 15? The possibility of such reductions came up several times during the emotional public debate following the gangrape in Delhi on December 16, 2012, in which a minor had played a chillingly significant role. Cooler counsel had prevailed when the outrage was past, and there is no reason to reopen a debate on which agreement was reached.
There are compelling practical reasons to keep juvenile crime a special category, and not to expose child criminals to the full punitive power of the law. In the first place, it would mean opening the door to a very bad place — the Indian jail system. Children who have transgressed to varying degrees would be exposed to the disastrously negative atmosphere in most correctional facilities — both the resignation of the permanent undertrial and the attractions of the criminal networks that flourish with impunity behind bars, and which provide community to those whom society has rejected or abused, and set them up in crime for life. Besides, lowering the age of majority with respect to criminal law would rekindle the usual related demands, such as the age of consent, the drinking age and the age for driving.
While exposing juvenile perpetrators to retributive judicial violence would be counter-productive, the pain of their victims must also be addressed. Usually, it finds expression in the wish that their tragedy should mark the end of the line, that other innocents should not have to suffer their fate. This is also the expectation of society. The primary need, therefore, is of the correction and education of juvenile offenders, rather than their incarceration among hardened adult criminals. A government facing a rising tide of juvenile crime must first regard the child transgressor as corrigible, and improve juvenile homes, which are not without their horror stories. With the help of expert opinion, it may consider alternative action in the rarest of rare cases in which, for medical reasons, the perpetrator may indeed be incorrigible and remain a permanent threat to society. But otherwise, the state must treat childhood as a sacred space.
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