Children of different backgrounds grow up in environments that affect them differently. A combination of genes and environmental influence determines what kind of a person a child grows up to be.
So in the process, it is not uncommon that criminal mindsets are created early in children. But due to the simple fact that juvenile criminals are children, a lot of legal leniencies are reserved for them.
In India, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, of 1986, defines a juvenile or a child, in the case of a boy who has not attained 16 years of age, and in the case of a girl below 18 years of age.
A revision of the Act in 2015 defined juvenile as any person below the age of 18. The Indian judiciary had created a separate justice system for child criminals in line with other international instruments as well.
Kathua Rape Case
In January 2018, Asifa Bano, a tribal Gujjar girl of 8 years of age, was the victim of a heinous attack in Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir. She was brutally gang-raped and murdered by a group of men that included one allegedly juvenile criminal, Shubham Sangra.
At that time the state high court had concluded that he was not 18 years of age, and hence Sangra was exempt from the normal procedural punishment, in line with the leniency shown to juvenile criminals.
But recently the Supreme Court observed a discrepancy in Sangra’s birth certificate and other age-related documents. On the basis of physical, dental, and radiological examination, the Special Medical Board has concluded that Sangra was above 19 years of age when he committed the crime.
Yet even then upon Sangra’s application under the Kashmir Juvenile Justice Care and Protection of Children Act, his claim to be a juvenile was accepted by the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir.
The then state of Jammu and Kashmir had appealed against the High Court order, claiming that there is no reliable and convincing documentary proof to show that the accused, Sangra, was born on 23rd October 2002, as recorded by a municipal committee in Kathua.
The Apex court recently agreed with the state’s appeal, stating that when an “accused commits a heinous and grave crime like the one on hand and thereafter attempts to take the statutory shelter, under the guise of being a minor, a casual or cavalier approach while recording as to whether an accused is a juvenile or not, cannot be permitted as the courts are enjoined upon to perform their duties with the object of protecting the confidence of a common man in the institution entrusted with the administration of justice.”
Rising Juvenile Crimes
According to the provisions under the Criminal Procedure Code, juvenile criminals are shown leniency and tried under the special juvenile law if one is proven to have not been aware of the consequences of one’s action. In case one is found to be guilty, the juvenile is sent to a reformation home and can be remanded there for three years.
The Supreme Court admitted that the lenient juvenile law may have been a primary cause behind juvenile criminals wreaking havoc in society.
Justice Pardiwala, who supervised the latest judgment, has expressed apprehensions regarding the merciful aspects of the Juvenile Justice Act of 2015. He stated that the lenient provisions may have acted as a protective shield for juveniles who commit brutal crimes.
The Apex court noted the rising rate of juvenile delinquency in India. Justice Pardiwala stated, “The manner in which brutal and heinous crimes have been committed over a period of time by the juveniles and still continue to be committed…We have started gathering an impression that the leniency with which the juveniles are dealt with in the name of the goal of reformation is making them more and more emboldened in indulging in such heinous crimes”.
The bench of justices Ajay Rastogi and J B Pardiwala asked the Centre to investigate if the special legislation for juvies is functioning well or not.
They noted that it is important to find out whether the Juvenile Justice Act requires modifications to tackle the growing number of crimes committed by persons below 18 years of age.
The Supreme Court judgment also mentioned the appropriate way to handle juvenile criminals. They stated, “there is a school of thought existing in our country that firmly believes that howsoever heinous the crime may be, be it single rape, gangrape, drug peddling or murder, but if the accused is a juvenile, he should be dealt with keeping in mind only one thing, i.e, the goal of reformation”.
Other Lenient Cases
In a gang rape case of December 2012, the accused was below 18 years of age. It was in this context that the case of Salil Bali vs. Union of India emerged, with a plea demanding to reduce the juvenile age limit from 18 to 16 years.
Plus a plea was made to amend the special juvenile law such that persons who have committed brutal crimes are tried as adults. But at the time the Supreme Court had rejected this proposal, claiming that the Juvenile Act is based on sound principles and displays compatibility with the Indian Constitution.
In the infamous Delhi gang rape case or Nirbhaya incident, one of the accused was let off with a lighter punishment on account of his minor age.
Despite the heinousness of the crime, the person was exempt from harsh punishment. This led to public criticism and demands for justice, which led the Supreme Court to review its decision.
Hence it is essential for the Indian judiciary to reform its legal treatment for juvenile criminals. Even if the accused are minors, they must not be led to believe that the law will spare them due to their age.
Disclaimer: This article is fact-checked
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