Juveniles must pay for adult crimes

| | in Oped

The juvenile justice Act has been amended before, but the law is still not strong enough to punish the minor perpetrators of heinous crimes that are adult in nature

Increasing rate of  crimes, including the most heinous ones like murder, rape and acid attacks, which could be named  as adult crimes, are a cause of great concern both for the public at large  and the law enforcement agencies. In spite of pan-India public protests and candle-light marches, the abysmally  low conviction rate and extraordinary delays in justice delivery system speak poorly of the law and order situation in the country. Poverty, overcrowding, unemployment, urbanisation... the list is endless for describing the genesis of the problem. But so little has been done by the judiciary and by the legislature to bring about constructive change.

Adult crimes could include those which cause permanent physical and psychological disability and even death, like in cases of rape, murder and acid attacks. The rest of the crimes like robberies, snatchings, pickpocketing, car-jacking etc, could be put in the category of non-adult crimes. Looking at the severity of crime and the devastating effect that is inflicted upon the victims and their families, there is a need to try them separately from the rest, in specifically designated fast track courts, and in a time bound manner, on a priority basis.  

There exists a big problem of shortfall of number of judges in proportion to the rising number of cases, including  a huge backlog of unsolved pending cases and regular addition of  big number of new ones. The phenomenon of over-worked judges makes it impossible to try all the cases with speed and efficacy. Therefore, there is a need to promulgate laws that allow the two categories of crimes to be tried by different set of laws, particularly those that are heinous in nature and fall in the category of ‘rarest of rare’, and  warrant speedy justice delivery and better percentage of rate of convictions — as in cases of adult crimes.

Advanced puberty, unlimited exposure to adult contents in the media etc bring early maturity, and those with delinquent tendencies fall prey to indulge in adult crimes easily. Who could have imagined  a few decades ago of a 14-year old boy committing rape? Some gangs tend to take advantage of the laxity given to juveniles by the Indian jurisprudence, and employ  them with the bait of better living and a flashy life-style. There is no rationale in following the age-old practice of awarding a lenient and differential treatment to such a delinquent person, just because he or she is below 18 years of age — a minor or a juvenile.

Times  have changed, and so the laws should also change. It is also not uncommon to see these very group of juveniles  becoming repeat offenders, and hardened criminals, roaming freely, after a brief stint at the reformatories. They, or at least many of them, ending up posing great danger to society as a whole. There are recoded instances of such cases.

However, the suffering of the victim does not become any less, whether the criminal is a minor or major. Justice delayed is truly justice denied, when the effected victims and their families routinely counter their perpetrators moving around freely, mocking at them and even threatening them with violence if they didn’t withdraw their complaints against the accused.

 The most glaring example recently was that of a tailor living in Uttarakhand, who raped young girls from the age of fourteen, and kept on repeating the act for another 10 years before he was finally convicted and put behind bars. He had been caught many times but always secured bail because of his minor status.

A minor accused charged with a crime that falls in the category of adult crime, should be tried in a way that would be similar to what an adult would have to deal with. Age cannot be a means to let him go free or leniently in such cases. Neither should other excuses such as poverty or peer pressure become an alibi for pardoning, or lessening his sentence in any way.

Although the juvenile justice Act has been amended many times, and the age of a juvenile has been suggested to be lowered to 16 from 18, various implementations have not seen the light of the day. The spoilers are both the judiciary and  the legislature. The amendments get stuck, sometimes in the higher courts, or in the Supreme Court. And, at times Parliament sits over a reform Bill — or worse, does not function effectively.

(The writer is a freelance commentator)

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