‘Voice it’ Tuesday : Is 16 old enough to punish ?

In  the wake of the brutal gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in a moving bus, in Delhi, by six males, including a minor, protestors from different  activist groups are calling  for reducing the age limit for Juveniles under the criminal justice system from 18  to 16. Though the petition is completely understandable considering the magnitude of the assault, it makes sense to reject this proposal, as the move, driven by emotions, would do more harm than good.

According to the The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000, the minor charged in the Delhi rape and murder, will receive rehabilitation in a Juvenile remand home and may walk free with a maximum of three years, while the other five convicts  will serve a life imprisonment or face a death penalty according to the verdict. The victim’s family is enraged by this decision of the Supreme Court and want a death sentence, for the so called ‘Juvenile’, irrespective of his age. If he is old enough to rape, he is old enough to be hanged, is the  speculation made by protestors.

According to Adithan , Advocate in Criminal Law, even if the law is passed now it will not impact the perpetrators of the Delhi crime, and could only have grave consequences for several other juveniles in future.

Take the case of the 15 year old Student who stabbed to death his teacher in an empty classroom in Chennai last February, after she gave him bad marks  on a progress card. This sent shockwaves throughout the nation. Here the victim, the mother of two girls, also deserves Justice but will it then require the Juvenile’s age to be lowered to as low as 14 ?

Instead of calling for brutal penalties in the event of one brutal case, we need to amend the Juvenile Justice Act of 2000 and implement it in such a way to balance and solve three issues:

1) bring justice to people who are the victims to Juvenile Delinquency;

2) defend the children of our country while giving them a second chance; and most importantly

3) curb youth crime rates.

So the million dollar question arises ‘Should such juveniles who commit heinous crimes be let off just because of their age?’ The nature and intensity of the punishment should be based on the gravity of the offense and intention behind it and not based on the age. In The United States, heinous crimes such as rape and murder are handled as exceptions and 16 year olds are tried as adults in such cases. These harsh punishments are only to ensure that victims are granted the  Justice and  this to an extent might also prevent such crime among Juveniles. Adithan, even suggests maintaining a separate block in prison for adolescents, like there is one for women, so that Youth ‘Criminals’ are punished but separated  from hardcore adult criminals. He says a choice may be made whether the adolescent should be sentenced to Simple Imprisonment or Rigorous Imprisonment.

There are many minors who are lured into crimes due to family influence, bad parenting and peer influence. It appears in many cases that adults misuse the Juvenile provisions for Justice and use these children in acts such as robbery and fraud. The solution doesn’t lie in condemning Juveniles in conflict with the law, in par with adults . Reformist mode works best here — making them responsible citizens of tomorrow. Once a criminal, forever a criminal is how the Indian society functions – there is no second chance for the 16 year olds to lead a normal life henceforth .

According to The Indian Express, over 33,000 juveniles, mostly between the age group of 16 to 18, have been arrested for crimes like rape and murder across the country in 2011, the highest in the last decade. It is the lack of protection mechanism that is responsible for the growing incidence of Juvenile Delinquency. For instance  the police force in London started an event that worked with the Newham All Star Sports Academy or NASSA, which works with troubled young people and introduces them to sports. A small basketball tournament was played between teams made up of young people from the NASSA. The message of the event was, ‘carry a basketball, not a knife,’ and it was a very innovative and an interesting way to get young people to engage in a fun activity and stay out of trouble.

India is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Child Rights and the Beijing and Riyadh rules that define a child as anyone aged less than 18 years; adhering to International norms is yet another reason to not lower the age bar for Juvenile delinquents.

There have been plenty of arguments debating that the biological age shouldn’t determine the mental maturity of a person. But there are unique challenges to setting a bar for maturity. Reducing the upper limit to 16 will further require the government to entitle them to vote, drink, marry, drive and even permits to take up legal representation. It is agreeable to think when 16 year olds are mature enough for all the other such related entitlements, the Juvenile’s age in the Judiciary act may then be lowered to 16.


Note :  Apologies if this post seems slightly outdated -this was written by me as an opinion- editorial in a Freelance Journalism class  and thought it was worth posting and getting feedback.

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