A bill for juvenile injustice

The Cabinet’s nod to amendments in the Juvenile Justice Bill would not only violate the basic principles of the Constitution, but also be in conflict with evidence-based social policy.

Updated - April 02, 2016 09:01 pm IST

Published - April 27, 2015 02:03 am IST

Illustration: Satwik Gade

Illustration: Satwik Gade

Nearly 25 years ago, India ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and joined the world in making a promise to protect and promote the rights of children. Today, with the government’s proposed amendments to the Juvenile Justice Bill, India is in serious danger of going back on that promise.

In August 2014, this government introduced the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection Bill) in Lok Sabha which proposes to introduce a ‘judicial waiver’ system in India whereby juvenile offenders aged between 16 and 18 years would be tried and punished as adults for a certain class of crimes. Subsequently, this Bill was referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee which examined this in detail and submitted strong objections in February this year. In spite of this, media reports indicate that the Union Cabinet has decided to go ahead with this Bill. In my opinion, doing this would result, first and foremost, in violating the basic principles of the international juvenile criminal system and our own Constitution. More importantly, this would be a regressive move which would run foul of evidence-based social policy.

>Read: Juveniles need reform, not prison

Busting misconceptions There is a perception that many juveniles are committing violent crimes, especially rapes, and this can be addressed by the government’s amendments. Let’s look at the factual evidence we have. According to government crime statistics, in 2013, 1,388 cases of rape were registered against juveniles in the 16 to 18 year age group. This amounts to less than 5 per cent of all rape cases registered that year. Further, when the Parliamentary Standing Committee examined the matter, it found that many of the juvenile rape cases could be attributed to the increase in the age of consent of sexual activity from 16 to 18 years. This, prima facie, should put to rest the growing misconception that there is a high proportion of juveniles accused of committing rapes. Some people have spoken in support of the proposed Bill on the ground that the seriousness of the crime reflects the mental maturity of the juvenile. Unfortunately, this argument seems to have ignored all the research in neuroscience and psychology. It is now well accepted that adolescence is a period of tremendous physiological, hormonal, emotional and structural changes in the human brain, making it a time of great vulnerability. Neuroscientists have found that the prefrontal lobe in the human brain, which is responsible for important functions such as planning, reasoning, judgment, and impulse control, is fully developed only by the age of 25 years.

A closer look at the government’s crime statistics reveals that almost 80 per cent of juveniles accused of crimes belong to families having an annual income of less than Rs. 50,000 and more than 50 per cent of them did not complete primary school. Evidence from many juvenile homes across the country reflects the same grim picture. So when we, as a society, have collectively failed to provide our children with the right environment to grow in, how fair is it for us to penalise them using an adult criminal system?

A heart-warming example of the efficacy of the present juvenile justice system is the story of ‘G’ (identity protected), a girl who came in to conflict with law at the age of 16. She lost her mother at a very young age and was sexually and physically abused as a child. She was arrested for prostitution and trafficking. During her time at a juvenile home, she would often feel incredibly angry and suicidal. But, professional help and care at the Government Juvenile Centre was integral to her turning over a new leaf. Now, almost 20 years old, ‘G’ is working as a salesgirl in a cloth shop and knows tailoring, embroidery and has even started taking care of children where she stays. This story is part of the excellent work done on this subject by the National Law School’s Centre for the Child and Law.

>Read: Towards a comprehensive Juvenile Justice law

Even countries such as the U.S. and U.K., which introduced the judicial waiver system, have now accepted that they have been ineffective in addressing juvenile crime rate, public safety and recidivism. According to the National Campaign to Reform State Juvenile Justice Systems (U.S.), 80 per cent of the juveniles who are released from adult prisons go on to commit more serious offences. It is for us to now decide whether we want juveniles to reform and rejoin our society or become hardened criminals themselves.

Protecting child rights According to media reports, the Union Cabinet has decided to override the Parliamentary Standing Committee’s recommendations. We can expect the Bill to be discussed in the Lok Sabha in the next few days. In this context, it is essential for us to ensure that correct facts are placed on record. In the past one month, I had sought information, evidence and opinions from various women rights groups, lawyers, Pro-child Network — a collective of more than 50 NGOs who are working on child rights — and juvenile centre administrators on this issue. The unanimous opinion of all of them was that the changes proposed in this Bill are detrimental to the rights of Indian children. Even the Supreme Court, in the cases of Swamy vs Raju (2014) and Salil Bali vs Union of India (2013), has upheld the constitutionality of the existing juvenile justice system.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee, which was chaired by a member from the Bharatiya Janata Party, studied the Bill in detail and stated that subjecting children in the age group of 16 to 18 years to an adult criminal system would be unconstitutional. Keeping in mind the prevailing scientific, judicial and parliamentary wisdom, I call upon political parties across the ruling and opposition benches to stop this Bill in its tracks.

(Kanimozhi Karunanidhi is a Member of Parliament, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.)

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