A rape or murder committed by a 12-year-old or a 16-year-old is no less heinous than the same crime committed by an adult. It is a fallacy that the Juvenile Justice Act as it stands now prevents young people who commit such crimes from being punished. What the current JJ Act ensures is that young people who are accused of crimes will not be tried in adult courts, or jailed in adult jails if convicted; instead they are tried by Juvenile Justice Boards and if convicted, serve punishment in juvenile correctional homes. This is because housing young offenders with adult criminals will further expose them to crime, rather than wean them away from it.

Scientific studies show that in adolescents the part of the brain that controls the ability to plan, take decisions, correctly assess risks and set long-term goals is not fully developed. Any parent of a teenager will know that youngsters between 16-18 years of age are especially vulnerable to peer pressure, and prone to risky, impulsive behaviour with little care for consequences. This being the case, “stern laws” that fail to deter even adults from committing rape or murder will certainly not deter youngsters who are naturally rash.

Where do youngsters learn to rape and kill? Ninety-four per cent of rapes happen inside households or other private places, by trusted persons. Two out of every three children in India face sexual abuse or physical abuse in families and schools. And kids from poor households face even worse violence where they work: as truck drivers’ assistants, in dhabas, and as household help. If and when they come into the hands of the police, kids from poor households face torture and rape in police custody. Even inside the juvenile homes, violence, malnutrition, cruelty and rape, even by the care-providers, are rampant.

Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer said that adult jails are where young offenders acquire “PhDs in crime”. The US’ department of justice, in a 2011 report, cited six large-scale studies that found youth who were transferred to adult jails were generally found to have re-offended “sooner and more frequently” than those retained in the juvenile justice system, because of “the direct and indirect effects of criminal conviction on the life chances of transferred youth, the lack of access to rehabilitative resources in the adult corrections system, and the hazards of association with older criminal ‘mentors’”. As a result of this experience, between 2005 and 2010, 15 US states enacted laws to prevent young people from entering the adult criminal justice system.
If, as is proposed, Juvenile Justice Boards can decide whether or not to transfer the young accused to an adult court, such decisions are likely to be arbitrary, based mostly on public outcry in some sensationalised cases. The decision to transfer itself can create prejudice against the accused.

If we want to reduce crimes by young people, we should invest in reforming juvenile correctional homes so that the care and effort needed to transform juvenile offenders is actually provided.

Kavita Krishnan is secretary, All-India Progressive Women’s Association