Experts urge the government not to confuse the age of juvenility with the ongoing age of sexual consent debate

Even as the debate over the age for consensual sex continues in the country, a colloquium organised in the National Capital agreed that the age of the child or juvenile should be 18 years and lowering it would be a regressive step.

The government intended to lower the age of consensual sex from 18 to 16 years but it was opposed by several political parties.

The most important point emphasised by all speakers at the colloquium on “Juvenile Justice” was to ensure that the age of juvenility is not confused with the ongoing age of sexual consent debate in India as the two provisions are distinct concepts though both have their basis in the principle of child protection. While juvenility is to protect the rights of a juvenile offender, the age of sexual consent is to ensure that young people are not criminalised for consensual sexual activity.

Coinciding with the discussions on the various legal ages for children and also demands for lowering the age of juvenility, a study was presented by Dr. Kimberly Ambrose of the U.S., which has brought forth forensic evidence on brain development and has been used by the Supreme Court of the U.S. to pronounce certain judgements concerning young offenders. The evidence shows that the brain does not develop fully until the age of 20 years and this explains the impulsive and risk taking behaviour among young persons.

It was agreed that there remains a lot of ambiguity when it comes to implementation of the juvenile justice standards in national contexts and in many countries, the tools and means to implement effective juvenile justice systems are missing. Monitoring is weak, leading to inadequacies in the system. Justice Ravindra Bhat of the Delhi High Court suggested that the government should invest in regular audit of the juvenile justice system just as it invests in tax audits.

The three-day event, organised by HAQ — Centre for Child Rights, UNICEF, National Law University (Delhi), Save the Children-India and Child Fund-India, ended on the note that across the world, knee-jerk reactions in some cases have led the politicians and policy makers to change the law to the detriment of both the young offender and the victims. In the U.S., for example, research is showing that stringent punishment or treatment of a juvenile has led to non-reporting or covering up of offences by young people aged 16-18 years.

There was an agreement to invest in preventing juvenile crimes, which is also more cost effective for a nation as is shown in research collated by the International Juvenile Justice Observatory in Brussels.

Voicing concern over knee-jerk reactions following the declaration of one of the accused in the recent Delhi gang rape case as a juvenile, Chief Justice of India Altamash Kabir reminded the country that India has ratified the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, and therefore has an obligation to uphold all rights for all children, including those who come in conflict with the law. “We must allow law to take its due course,” Justice Kabir emphasised.

The colloquium brought together 60 participants from 14 countries, representing statutory bodies, academics, lawyers and practitioners. Some of the distinguished speakers included Justice Amar Saran of the Allahabad High Court; Justice Ravindra Bhat of the Delhi High Court; Nikhil Roy of Penal Reform International-U.K.; Prof. Jaap E. Doek, former Chair of the Committee on the Rights of the Child; Cedric Foussard, Director, International Juvenile Justice Observatory; Dr. Ann Skelton from the University of Pretoria, who was part of the drafting Committee of the Child Justice Act of South Africa; Kathi L. Grasso from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), U.S. Department of Justice, Washington D.C.

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