By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Indian parliamentarians must reject proposed changes to a law that would allow children accused of crimes such as rape to be tried and punished as adults, activists said, adding that the amendments violated child rights and would not stem sex crimes.
The Juvenile Justice Act, the country’s primary legal framework for minors, defines a person under 18 as a juvenile and caps punishment – no matter what the crime – to three years in a correctional home.
The law has come under scrutiny since the 2012 fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a Delhi bus by six assailants, one of whom was 17.
While one perpetrator committed suicide in jail and four others were sentenced to death, the teenager was given the legal maximum of three years in a juvenile home, sparking outrage and debate over whether India is soft on young offenders.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government wants to amend the law, so that a juvenile justice board can determine whether a person between 16 and 18 accused of crimes such as rape or murder should be tried as an adult or a child.
The government claims this would act as a deterrent and make society safer for women, but critics say it is a “knee-jerk” reaction to the high profile gang rape, which triggered public protests and calls for the death penalty for the juvenile.
“Since the December 2012 incident we have been divided into two camps: Some of us who believe in rule of law and some of us who are ruled by our emotions,” Ved Kumari, a law professor at Delhi University, told a news conference late on Monday.
“Are we really talking about safety of society, or are we talking about a political response to an emotional frenzy created in the wake of one incident? I don’t think we should be a country which responds to emotions alone.”
Kumari said the amendments violated the rights of children, many of whom are poor and have suffered neglect and abuse.
India’s lower house, where the government has a majority, passed the amendments on Thursday. The upper house is scheduled to consider them on Tuesday.
REFORM NOT PUNISH
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, juveniles committed 31,725 crimes – 1.2 percent of the total number of serious crimes – in India in 2013.
By comparison, in the United States, juveniles were responsible for 25 percent of violent crimes in the same year.
The NCRB data said there were 17,795 cases of theft, burglary and physical assault by juveniles, and 2,074 rapes. The total number of rapes in 2013 was 33,707.
Child rights activists say judging the maturity of a juvenile is difficult as their brain is different in structure and functioning than that of an adult, and that conclusions drawn would be “unscientific” and “arbitrary”.
They say authorities should look at the profile of juvenile offenders – many are poor, uneducated and abused – and give them the chance to reform, rather than punishing them blindly.
According to NCRB data, 77 percent of children apprehended were from families earning less than 50,000 rupees ($780) per year.
“There are millions and millions of children who are out of school, with no job, no future and no hope,” said Colin Gonsalves, a Supreme Court lawyer and director of the charity, the Human Rights Law Network.
“If there are children engaging in violence, it is the fault and failure of the state. The state must respond to the violence of young people with kindness.”