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Figures fuel cry against law tweak
- Debate over Juvenile Justice Act change

New Delhi, July 17: Statistics released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) this week have added fuel to the raging fire against the government’s proposal to amend the Juvenile Justice Act to try as adults those children between 16 and 18 years who are accused of heinous crimes.

Women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi opened a can of worms three days ago when she was quoted as saying: “According to the police, 50 per cent of all sexual crimes are committed by 16-year-olds who know the JJ Act so they can do it. If for pre-meditated murders, for rape, we bring them into the purview of the adult world, it will scare them.”

The NCRB report released a day later did not lend credence to her statement. It said that in 2013, crimes committed by juveniles accounted for 1.2 per cent of all the crimes committed under the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

According to the government report, out of the 4,085 cases of sexual crimes by juveniles reported in 2013, 2,838 cases involved children in the 16-18 age category.

While Maneka claimed that 50 per cent of sexual crimes in India are being committed by 16-year-olds, government data shows that the figure is no more than 2.4 per cent. Sexual crimes committed by all juveniles account for 3.4 per cent of the 1.17 lakh cases of sexual crime reported in 2013.

It is not clear if the minister meant that half of all sexual crimes committed by minors are committed by 16-18-year-olds. However, if she missed the word “minors”, neither Maneka nor her office have issued a clarification even after her comments at a book release in Chennai on Sunday were widely reported.

Activists have maintained that the statistics on juvenile crime are not so alarming as to warrant a change in law.

“The number of children in the 16-18 age category booked for violent crimes in 2012 was 6,747. In 2013, it went up to 6,854 — an increase of 1.6 per cent. Can a country as large as India afford to suggest that it is unable to take care of this minuscule number?” ProChild Network, a group of NGOs working on child rights issues, asked.

The ministry is in the process of preparing a cabinet note that could give discretionary powers to the Juvenile Justice Board to send such accused to courts to be tried as adults. The decision was taken by UPA II, and the ministry has been at loggerheads with child rights activists since. Maneka is now believed to be reviewing the draft proposal one last time, after which the note will be prepared.

At present, a minor arrested even for the rarest of rare crimes can only be given a maximum sentence of three years under the JJ Act.

Activists say they still have hope. Maneka was the social justice and empowerment minister in 2000 who raised the juvenile age cut-off from 15 to 18 years under the JJ Act.

“We are not in confrontation with the ministry. This system was started in the US 15-20 years ago and now they are rethinking it. Studies by the US state department have shown how young offenders tried in adult courts have a higher rate of re-arrest than those tried by juvenile courts,” said Atiya Bose of Aangan Trust, a child rights NGO.

“Even looking at the Indian statistics one can understand that there is a perception that there is an epidemic of juvenile crimes, which is not the case. I just want to say, why choose a path which has been known to fail?” asked Bose.