Proposed amendment in juvenile law draws bouquet, brickbats

The proposed law for prosecuting juveniles aged between 16 and 18 years for heinous crimes in regular courts have drawn bouquets as well as brickbats from jurists and child rights activists.

New Delhi: The proposed law for prosecuting juveniles aged between 16 and 18 years for heinous crimes in regular courts have drawn bouquets as well as brickbats from jurists and child rights activists.

Amidst the debate that the present juvenile system has proved ineffective and the proposed amendment would be too harsh, legal experts` view supporting deterrent step did not find favour with the activists who feel it compromises with the protection of minors.

Under the proposed amendment in the Juvenile Justice Act, approved by the Union cabinet earlier this month, juveniles above 16 years could be treated at par with adults if involved in heinous crimes, like rape and murder, for which there is a minimum imprisonment of seven years.

According to the amendment, the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) will decide whether cases where a juvenile is involved in a heinous crime would be tried under the provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act or normal trial court.

The amended bill, which is pending in Parliament, however, secures juveniles convicted for heinous offences from death penalty and life sentence.

Senior advocates K T S Tulsi and H S Phoolka, and Atul Mathur, Chairman of Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR), said this step was important as juveniles in conflict with law will come to know that they cannot be let off easily.

However, activists like Bharti Ali, Ranjana Kumari and Ananth Kumar Asthana countered them by saying that fixing an age limit is not the solution and sending juveniles to jail instead of probation home would prove counter productive and would hit the reformist policy.

Advocate Anup Bhambani, who is assisting the Delhi High Court as an amicus curiae in a case of ruckus caused in remand home by juveniles last year, said the present juvenile system is ineffective and required better implementation, "but the new amendment would be too harsh on juveniles and would make them bitter".

Ali, founder of NGO, HAQ:Centre for Child Rights, Kumari, Director for Centre for Social Research, and Asthana, a child right activist lawyer, said that categorising juveniles in such a way and trying and putting them in jails along with adults could lead to their becoming "hardened criminals".

This view, however, was not shared by Tulsi and Phoolka, who have taken matters of children protection in the Supreme Court as they feel that government has adopted a welcome move which prevents children from exploitation at the hands of criminal gangs which specifically hire minors.

Sharing similar views, Mathur said the current justice system was not helping in reformation of juveniles in conflict with law and this amendment was a way to tell these offenders that they won`t be let off easily for committing heinous crimes.

"We must try this amendment and give the law a chance to see if it acts as a deterrent to the juveniles committing heinous crimes. The juveniles will know that they will not go scot-free but can be kept in jail for a long time. Every law goes through a process of evolution and we must give it a chance," Mathur said.

Kumari, however, opined that fixing an age group of juvenile offenders is not the right way to address the issue as similar nature of crime could also be committed by a child who is a month less than 16 years.

Her view was echoed by Ali who said that trying juveniles at par with adults would "not deter them from committing heinous offences because if it could, then incidents of crime committed by adults should have come down by now".

"This amendment should go to the parliamentary standing committee for further discussion. No need to rush with it. Failure of the present juvenile justice system does not mean we send children to the adult justice system and expose them to hardened criminals," she said.

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