Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Juvenile Justice: should we amend the law? By Jojo Mathews

The involvement of minors in the heinous crimes which recently gained attention of media and invited public outcry has resulted into a serious debate related to the efficacy of Juvenile Law in India. The issues related to Juvenile Law came to the surface as minors were allegedly involved in the December 16 Delhi rape and murder case and in Mumbai photo journalist rape case. These cases shook the country’s conscience, brought forth an unprecedented outpouring of anger and triggered collective introspection on the safety of women.
In December 16 Delhi rape and murder case the accused juvenile is just a few months below the age of 18. As a result the Supreme Court refused to allow the trial of this accused as an adult. In the surcharged atmosphere the public opinion was against this. Many were of the view that because the accused is just a few months short of 18, and if found guilty juvenile law would allow him a lighter punishment of three years in a correctional facility, thus he should be treated at par with his adult accomplices. Many public interest litigations (PILs) have been filed which have demanded to dilute the Juvenile Justice Act and reduce the age to be considered as a juvenile from 18 years to 16 years. 
India defines those below 18 as minors, who have certain protections and do not have the same degree of responsibility as adults. There are two pertinent issues involved here. The first issue deals with the dilution of the law related to the juveniles.  The other is related to threshold of criminal prosecution to be reduced from the present age of 18 years.
The first issue is related to the efficacy of the juvenile law in India. After Delhi rape case, there was the public demand that the accused juvenile should be tried under the criminal prosecution like his accomplices.  The magnitude of public anguish was so high that many were of the opinion that if juvenile law allows him lighter punishment it should be amended. Should we amend a particular law just because it allows lighter punishment to a minor accused of an ignominious crime in a particular case? It’s true that the accused juvenile would be awarded exceptionally low punishment in proportion to the brutality to which he indulged to, but the laws are not meant to address the exceptional cases or to react to the heat of the moment.
Allied with the issue of the efficacy of the juvenile law in India, I would like to put forward a few arguments in the favor of the premise that the juvenile law in India should remain intact.
Firstly, it has been empirically proven that there is no correlation between the magnitudes of the punishment awarded with the crime rates in the society. So it would be a misnomer if we expect that harsher juvenile laws would forbid minors to indulge in crimes.
Secondly, the juvenile crime rate in India is very low vis-à-vis other developed western countries. This means the law is not that bad in India as what is projected in the media.
Thirdly the problems in our country are not because of lack of availability of tough laws. Our problem is in our implementation of the Law. The conviction rate in our country is very low. An assured punishment will deter more people from committing a crime rather than the severity of punishment. The conviction rates should go up. For that our legal system should be revamped immediately. Scientific Crime investigation techniques should be introduced so that criminals don’t escape the law that easily.
Moreover in many cases-the juveniles are indulging in such brutal acts against the women because this is what’s passed on to them by the society. A child’s behaviour is critically dependent on what he or she has seen from the elders. The increasing crime by juveniles against women is a reflection of our scant respect for women in the society. Unless we collectively change our attitude towards women, it will be difficult for the Law alone to control the crime against women.
We must also understand the fact that children indulge in anti social activities because they have been failed by their society, deprived of quality life or sensitive counseling or a nurturing family environment and so, they do not have capacity to deal with the context. The juvenile law thus tries to reform a minor’s conduct rather than confine him behind the bars.
The second pertinent issue is related to the threshold of criminal prosecution to be reduced from the present age of 18 years. The logic behind awarding lighter punishment to any juvenile offender is the fact that the minor while committing any crime lacks capacity to understand the consequences of his act. This differentiates a juvenile offender from an adult counterpart. Age is just a surrogate variable adjusted to the inability and incapacity of a juvenile to understand the consequences of any act in holistic manner. It is pointed out by various scholars that because of the unlimited access to the information in the 21st century, children in present context are developing this capacity and understanding at a much early age. This logic seems plausible to reduce the threshold age of criminal prosecution. However the new threshold age must be backed by proper research and findings. We must not arbitrarily reduce the age from the present 18 to 16 without optimum research and ground work.
Today’s children of any country are the future citizens. They are to be nurtured properly. Any hasty and emotional decision can potentially spoil the future of children for ever.  Just by reducing the threshold age of adults to 16 years or by increasing the punishment we are going to deal with a larger social malady peripherally only. The more fundamental issue is our attitude towards women and our value system. A progress can be achieved in this direction only through sustained campaign and rigorous value education in schools.

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