The barbaric assault on the 23-year-old physiotherapy student by six persons including a teenager has sparked off a debate on whether the existing system of reformation and rehabilitation of juveniles in conflict with the law is effective enough to transform and reintegrate them with the mainstream.

Observation homes are vital institutions created for protection, development, reformation and rehabilitation of juvenile offenders. However, both within and outside the institution people have raised serious doubts over its efficacy. “The existing infrastructure is not adequate to extend ample opportunities to juveniles for their reformation, both in the source areas from where they come and at observation homes. The authorities have failed to develop an institutionalised mechanism for identification, timely intervention and reorientation of potential offenders. In observation homes too, first timers see little change from the outside world. They are subjected to abuse by fellow inmates, who are violent and mostly repeat offenders, and also by some home staff who treat them with contempt,” said a home official.

“There must be a separate home for repeat offenders and those involved in serious crimes for special care and counselling. A significant number of them are drug addicts requiring urgent intervention. Those who have stayed with adult under-trials at Tihar Jail are also a menace for other inmates and need to be segregated,” said another official, adding that activities of home officials should also be under constant scrutiny.

Home officials also complained that no provision for certified educational or vocational programmes are in place even for convicted inmates who can be encouraged to channelise their energy into productive work. “We do have tailoring and cooking courses, which are of little consequence,” said an official.

Bharti Ali, member of the observation home supervision committee, said: “The whole structure needs to be brought down. Juveniles presently live in a depressing environment. They spend most of the time in rooms without sunlight, are abused by elder inmates and caretakers, most of who are not inclined towards juvenile welfare.”

Child rights lawyer Anant Asthana said there are not enough counsellors and mental health experts: “We do have probation officers. However, the function of probation officers, who are considered guardians of the juveniles on probation, is presently restricted only to submitting social investigation report to the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) on the status of a juvenile’s family and his surroundings. Their job is to pay regular visits and mentor the juveniles, encourage them to pursue further education. However, today they are not well equipped to carry out their functions. There is no special probation service cadre for juveniles and those dealing with adults are also appointed as juvenile probation officers. Regular transfer of officers, who get replaced by untrained persons, is also a matter of concern. The issue had in fact attracted the attention of JJB which in 2011 observed that probation service in Delhi was virtually dead,” said Mr. Asthana.

Mr. Asthana added the identification of potential juvenile offenders and intervention in the source areas are functions of the District Child Protection Unit, which has not yet been set up in the Capital.

Advocating reduction of the childhood age from 18 to 16, many officials said a large number of juveniles in this age group – who are also aware of their rights under the Juvenile Justice Act – end up as repeat offenders, abuse and even encourage first-timers to indulge in crimes.

In a letter to the three-member committee of jurists formed to suggest amendments to criminal law to deal with sexual assault cases, a home official said in many cases even those beyond 18 years of age have been enjoying protection under the Juvenile Justice Act on the basis of false age certificates. “Earlier, as per the Juvenile Justice Act of 1986, the age of a juvenile was 16 years and it worked quite well, but citing a United Nations declaration it was raised to 18 in 2000. In support, examples of various other countries are cited, but not of the United States that does not ratify the very convention,” he said.

However, a group of child rights activists including Mr. Asthana and Ms. Bharti has written to the committee expressing concern over the demand stating that it will have serious and adverse consequences on crime prevention and well-being of children. “This particular incident (gang-rape) should not be stretched to the extent that it becomes an excuse for introducing regression and deviation from unanimously agreed upon principles of law and human rights,” said a child rights activist.