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Tuesday, Oct 04, 2022

No child’s play

Juvenile offenders are children gone wrong. Harsher punishment is no way to fix them.

Juvenile offenders are children gone wrong. Harsher punishment is no way to fix them.

Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi’s suggestion, that juveniles between 16 and 18 accused of committing serious crimes be tried in regular courts, resurrects a fraught question: should the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act should apply to grave offenders? The minister’s remarks are in consonance with the government’s efforts to “repeal and re-enact” the act. The new bill leaves it to the Juvenile Justice Board to determine, on a case-to-case basis, whether an offender above 16 should be treated as an adult. What is troubling is that Gandhi’s comments and the proposed legislation seem to be premised on the principle that punishment should be meted out to juveniles in proportion to the gravity of the offence. It is a position that is unburdened by public consultation or debate, and seems to be coloured by the same sentiment that sought “tougher” punishment for sexual crimes in the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi gangrape.

“According to the police, 50 per cent of all sexual crimes” are committed by 16-year-old juveniles, said Gandhi, but the statistics of the National Crime Records Bureau differ quite dramatically. The NCRB pegs the number of sex crimes committed by 16-18 year olds at 2,838 (out of nearly one lakh cases in 2013). Indeed, NCRB figures suggest crimes by juveniles account for less than two per cent of those committed last year.

There is certainly much that is broken in the juvenile justice system: more often than not, offenders are sent to a remand home or borstal school whose deplorable conditions only breed recidivist tendencies. As a result, the reformative goals of the JJ Act have largely not been met. Rather than acknowledge these pitfalls and foster a broader debate, the government has simply mooted a legislative intervention that blurs the line between juvenile and “mainstream” justice. Can a JJ Board really be expected to deliver a clinical assessment on the offender’s “nature” or would it be susceptible, like any other trial court, to popular rhetoric? The NDA’s hasty move has paid scant attention to the Supreme Court’s repeated assertions against lowering the juvenile offender’s age. Lost in the din is the fact that nearly half a billion Indians are below 18. Crime by those within this demographic is often rooted in deprivation — poverty, lack of education and access to opportunity. The Child Development Minister should address these rather than set children up for tougher punishment.

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First published on: 16-07-2014 at 12:16:45 am
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