Balancing the juvenile act

Young offenders above a certain age who commit violent crimes should be prosecuted as adults

September 09, 2013 02:11 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:21 pm IST

On August 31, 2013, the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) ordered that the boy who raped Nirbhaya, brutalised her with an iron rod, pulled out her intestines and then cleaned up the bus and made tea would go virtually free by sentencing him to only 28 months in a remand home as eight months of the total 36 months’ sentence had already been served. This order is subject to review by the JJB based on the behaviour of the juvenile and the police are required to expunge this crime from his record in order to ensure complete rehabilitation. Despite the unprecedented street protests following the Nirbhaya rape, there has been little substantive debate on the adequacy of the Juvenile Justice Act to deal with such heinous crimes.

Underlying principle

The JJ Act was passed in 2000 with the purpose of incorporating into domestic law India’s obligations under international law as a signatory of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989, the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for Administration of Juvenile Justice (1985) (known as the “Beijing Rules”) and the U.N. Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty (1990). Underlying these international texts is the legal philosophy that juveniles lack the physical and mental maturity to take responsibility for their crimes, and because their character is not fully developed, they still have the possibility of being rehabilitated. This basic principle underlies the juvenile justice systems in many countries, including the United States and the U.K.

The JJA creates a juvenile justice system in which persons up to the age of 18 who commit an offence punishable under any law are not subject to imprisonment in the adult justice system but instead will be subject to advice/admonition, counselling, community service, payment of a fine or, at the most, be sent to a remand home for three years.

However, the interest in protection of juveniles has to be balanced with the interest of protecting particularly vulnerable members of society from violent crimes committed by persons under 18 years of age and amending the law when societal conditions radically change over time. As per the reports of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) entitled “Crime in India 2011” and “Crime in India 2012,” the percentage of crimes committed by juveniles as compared to total crimes has not significantly increased from 2001-2012. According to the NCRB statistics, India is not in the throes of a general crime wave by juveniles. However, the NCRB statistics relating to violent crimes by juveniles against women are very troubling. “Crime in India 2011” suggests the number of rapes committed by juveniles has more than doubled over the past decade from 399 rapes in 2001 to 858 rapes in 2010. “Crime in India 2012” records that the total number of rapes committed by juveniles more than doubled from 485 in 2002 to 1149 in 2011.

As the data suggests, between 2011 and 2012 alone, there was a massive increase in instances of rape by juveniles by nearly 300, which is almost as much as the increase in such cases over the entire previous decade. This increase alone makes amendment of the JJA imperative.

‘Get tough’ approach

Several other countries such as the U.S. and the U.K., which are both signatories to the U.N. Convention, have also faced an increase in violent crimes by juveniles but, unlike India, they have taken action to amend their laws. Most States in the U.S. have enacted a juvenile code of which the main objective is rehabilitation and not punishment. Juveniles appear in juvenile court and not in adult court. Juvenile courts do not have the power to impose punishment and can impose only rehabilitative measures or assistance by government programmes. However, since the increase in violent crimes committed by juveniles in the 1990s, U.S. States have adopted a “get tough” approach in response.

In most U.S. States, the jurisdiction of juvenile courts is automatically waived when a juvenile above a certain age, usually 13 or 15, commits a violent or other serious crime, and the case is automatically transferred to adult court. A certification hearing takes place and an adult court prosecutor is required to convince the adult court that the case should be transferred. The juvenile is entitled to an attorney at the hearing and to present any evidence which mitigates against the transfer. For example, in Indiana, South Dakota and Vermont, children as young as 10 can be tried as adults. California’s Proposition 21 which was passed in 2000 allows prosecutors to automatically try juveniles who commit felonies as adults. Under Michigan’s Juvenile Waiver Law passed in 1997, juveniles can automatically be tried as adults.

Youth Court

Similarly, in the U.K., persons under 18 are tried by a “Youth Court” which is a special type of magistrate’s court for those aged 10-18 years. The Youth Court can issue community sentences, behavioural programmes, reparation orders, youth detention and rehabilitation programmes which last three years. However, for serious crimes like murder or rape, the case starts in Youth Court but is transferred to a Crown Court which is the same as a Sessions Court. The Crown Court can sentence the child for offences of murder committed when the offender was a youth as well as for “grave crimes” including sexual assault and sentence the child to “indeterminate detention for public protection.”

The Crown Court can also give “extended sentence” to a minor. If a youth is jointly charged with an adult, the charge is heard and tried by a regular court. If the youth is found guilty, the Crown Court can impose a sentence which does not exceed the maximum sentence applicable to an offender who is 21 years or older. Therefore, in both the U.S. and the U.K., juveniles who commit violent crimes such as rape are prosecuted in the same manner as adults.

Even the U.N. Convention and the Beijing Rules do not prohibit subjecting children/juveniles to the regular criminal justice system under certain circumstances. Article 40 of the U.N. Convention provides that a child who has been accused of having violated the penal law shall have the following guarantees: to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law, to be informed promptly of the charges against him and to have legal or other appropriate assistance in the preparation of his defence, to have the matter determined without delay by a competent and impartial authority or judicial body, not to be compelled to confess guilty, and to examine witnesses. Moreover, the state can establish a minimum age below which children shall be presumed not to have the capacity to infringe the penal law. Therefore, in accordance with the U.N. Convention, the JJ Act could have established an age limit, such as 14 or 16, below which a person could not be deemed to have the capacity to commit an offence. In short, the U.N. Convention does not prohibit prosecuting a child under 18 who has committed an offence under the regular penal laws.

Beijing Rules

Rule 17 of the Beijing Rules, in turn, provides that the reaction shall be in proportion to the circumstances and the gravity of the offence as well as the circumstances and needs of the juvenile as well as the needs of society. Furthermore, personal liberty may be deprived if the juvenile is adjudicated guilty of a serious offence involving violence against another person or persistence in committing other serious offences. Unlike the U.N. Convention, the Beijing Rules do not fix 18 as the age of a juvenile. Instead, the Beijing Rules provide for rules applicable to persons between the age of 7 and 18. Therefore, India’s international legal obligations do not prohibit it from amending the JJ Act to provide that persons between the age of 16-18 who are accused of rape, kidnapping and abduction of women and girls will be exempted from the jurisdiction of the JJB and tried in the adult criminal justice system.

Unfortunately, the current system serves neither the purpose of rehabilitation nor deterrence against future crime. As reported by India Today , there are 815 remand homes in India with a capacity of 35,000. However, there are 1.7 million juvenile accused in India. Remand homes in India are not conducive to the reform and rehabilitation of juveniles as envisioned by the principles enshrined in international law. While rehabilitation is certainly an important legal and societal objective, this interest surely has to be balanced with creating a legal deterrent to protect women and girls from the increasing incidence of rapes by juveniles. Particularly in view of the significant increase in rapes committed by juveniles since the JJ Act was passed, India should consider amendment of the Act to transfer certain violent crimes such as murder and rape committed by juveniles above a particular age to the adult criminal system.

(Aparna Viswanathan is a lawyer)

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