Protesters shout slogans outside Juvenile Justice Board demanding death penalty for the accused in New Delhi on Saturday. Picture by Yasir Iqbal
New Delhi, Aug. 31: The anguish of the mother of the December 16 gang-rape-and-murder victim after a juvenile accused received a three-year term today may re-ignite the debate whether young perpetrators of grievous crimes should be treated as adults and punished stringently.
The issue has gained further urgency with one of the five accused in the recent Mumbai gang rape of a photojournalist too being declared a juvenile yesterday.
“I don’t know the laws very well, but is this justice for a girl whose life was snuffed out by the brutality of this boy?” the mother told this newspaper here today.
Those advocating a change in the Juvenile Justice Act, 2000, have suggested mainly two options: one, lowering the age limit for juveniles from 18; two, tougher punishment for juvenile criminals.
Both women’s and child rights activists have rejected the first option and warned the second may do more harm than good.
The Union women and child development ministry has for sometime been working on amending the Juvenile Justice Act. Sources mentioned some of the provisions the ministry might propose:
Accused who are just six months to a year short of 18 be prosecuted like adults for grave crimes like rape and murder.
Repeat offenders be given longer sentences at juvenile homes.
Juveniles freed after serving their term be forced to meet counsellors periodically for a specified period so that their activities can be monitored, and/or wear ankle bracelets so the authorities can track them.
The provision about monitoring is the one rights activists are likeliest to agree with.
Juvenile law expert and child rights activist Anant Kumar Asthana cited how US police maintain a Sex Offenders Registry to keep a watch on convicts (adults or juvenile) after they serve out their terms.
“These offenders are also required to keep the police informed if they shift to some other city. They are always tracked. Our police need to follow this practice (for past juvenile offenders).”
Activists are unanimous that lowering the cut-off age would be the wrong path to take.
“Research has shown that adolescents do not think like adults. One or two bad cases cannot be a reason to change laws enacted after a lot of thought,” said Shireen Vakil Miller of Save the Children Foundation.
Joint research by the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association and the American National Association of Social Workers has found that older adolescents “lack the adult capacities to exercise self-restraint and are more likely to commit crimes in the age group of 14 to 17 years”.
Early this year, the Justice Verma Committee, mandated to recommend changes to sex crime laws, rejected a proposal to lower the age limit. It said that improving the reform and rehabilitation measures was the way to go.
Raj Mangal Prasad, former member of Delhi’s child welfare committee, echoed this view. “The important thing is to help reform the juvenile offenders as society too is to be blamed for their violent behaviour,” he said.
Miller accepted that “amendments can be made to include longer sentences in the rarest of rare cases” but All India Progressive Women’s Association secretary Kavita Krishnan disagreed.
“The Juvenile Justice Act should be followed to the letter. The onus should be on the state to ensure that children in juvenile homes are treated with care so they do not pose a threat to society when they come out,” she said.
“We should concentrate on reforming the child in the three years we have him under our control. If that is done, only then will the law act as a deterrent. No research has ever shown that stringent laws have brought down juvenile crime rates.”
Asthana said: “Had this boy (December 16 accused) been sent to jail, he would for sure have returned to society as a criminal. In a special home, he will get a chance to reform. If you have to choose between creating a criminal and preventing someone from becoming one, which is the better option?”
Three months ago, the Supreme Court had rejected a plea to scrap the age immunity granted to minors accused of heinous crimes. But last week, a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice P. Sathasivam agreed to revisit the issue while hearing a petition from BJP leader Subramaniam Swamy.
“I don’t think the Supreme Court is in favour of changing the existing law, going by its verdict three months ago on a similar petition,” senior apex court counsel Colin Gonsalves said.