16 to 18 to 16: Time to settle the debate once and for all!

Updated: May 10, 2013, 13:43 PM IST

Rashi Aditi Ghosh/ Zee Research Group

As the debate over lowering the male juvenile age gets hotter post Parliamentary panel’s recommendation to reduce it to 16 from current level of 18, India runs the risk of not being in sync with global benchmarks, especially the prescribed age limit under the UN Convention.

A look at India’s past suggests that any action favouring the Parliamentary panel’s recommendation would undo the non-amended provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act, 1986. Earlier, India had increased the upper age for juvenile male delinquents to 18 years from 16 years in 2000 when it replaced the Juvenile Justice Act, 1986 with the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act to comply with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989. The upper age for female juveniles was already 18 years as under the 1986 Act.

A decision to lower the age level of male juveniles from 18 years to 16 years is also not in sync with the Justice JS Verma Committee recommendations in formulation of the just passed anti-rape bill. The Justice JS Verma Committee, set up after the Delhi gang rape to recommend changes to criminal laws in India, cited the example of the Laurence Steinberg’s research paper ‘A Social Neuroscience Perspective on Adolescence Risk-Taking’ on brain development of an adolescent and favoured retaining the age for juvenile delinquency at 18 years despite demands from various sections of the society for lowering it.

Opposing the idea of reducing the age bar of a male juvenile in India, Anant Asthana, child rights lawyer at New Delhi said, “Lowering the age from 18 to 16 is something which has already been examined in great detail at all levels in the government on previous occasions in 2000. One incident (Delhi gang rape case) and its knee jerk reaction should not be a reason to undo a seriously considered legislative action. If that is done, thousands of children in the age group of 16 -18 will lose opportunities to reform and will increasingly suffer in jails.”

The UPA government on March 19, 2013 retained 18 as the age of consent for consensual sex. But to understand whether the demand for reducing the age of male juveniles from 18 years to 16 years is justified, it would be instructive to consider the age records of juvenile delinquents globally.

Global perspective on the age issues shows that many countries across the world have set 18 years or above as the age for being treated as a major for criminality committed by him or her. The age across all European nations in this regard is 21. In Asia, China has set it at 25 years and in Japan at 20 years. However, in Singapore the age is much less at 12 years. In the US, many states allow minors who are 14 to be tried as adults, and states such as Indiana allow those as young as 10 to be tried in adult courts. The US has not yet ratified the UN Convention on Rights of the Child.

However, it is not that there no takers for the age lowering proposition. Ripan Sippy, clinical psychologist from Delhi said, “Every child above 14 years of age develops the maturity level and decision making capacity. The rebellion tendencies amongst the teenagers are so high in the recent times that I nearly have to handle four cases in a day where a teenager is involved in various instances of conduct disorders.”