In May, the Lok Sabha ignored the recommendations of its standing committee to pass an amended Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2014, which would allow children between 16 and 18 years of age accused of committing “heinous” crimes to be tried as adults. The clamour to impose harsher punishment on older teenagers arose after one of the perpetrators of the December 16 gangrape was revealed to be 17 years old, and the government, led by Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi, answered this illiberal demand, prompted by one horrifying case, with undue alacrity. A comprehensive new study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics should nudge the government to rethink its ill-judged position.
The study evaluated the long-term outcomes for thousands of teenagers in conflict with the law in Chicago, US. The US, which has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, also jails more juveniles than any other country. The study, conducted by economists at MIT Sloan School of Management and Brown University, found that children who are incarcerated are substantially worse-off later in life than those who avoid serving time for similar offences. It looked at cases involving 35,000 juveniles, who had all committed offences that provided judges with discretion in determining the appropriate sentence. Because offenders were assigned judges randomly, the researchers were able to examine the consequences of varying sentences for the children. They found that juvenile incarceration reduced the probability of graduating high school by 13 percentage points, and that these children are more likely to end up in prison as adults by as much as 22 percentage points. Crucially, it also found that the timing of incarceration matters: the effects are strongest for 16-year-olds, a critical period of adolescence when going to jail would spell an end to high school education.
The Indian and American justice systems differ in many ways, but the impact of prison, especially the adult criminal punishment system, on children is probably similar, with India coming off worse. If the juvenile justice system is meant to be reformative, the new amendment is a move in entirely the wrong direction. Given that the bill is yet to clear Rajya Sabha, the government could still limit the damage and withdraw its ill-considered proposal.