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Lowering age for juvenile offenders wrong: Lawyers

As the chorus grows for reducing upper age limit for juveniles under the criminal justice system, lawyers and activists have rejected the proposal.

New Delhi: As the chorus grows stronger for reducing the upper age limit for juveniles under the criminal justice system from 18 years to 16, lawyers and activists have rejected the proposal saying that the move, driven by emotions, would do more harm than good.

The demand for lowering the age of juveniles for the purposes of trial has come in the wake of the brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old woman in a moving bus by six males, including a juvenile. According to police, the juvenile was the one who egged on the others to sexually assault the physiotherapist trainee and also used an iron rod on her.

But, as he claimed that he was underage, police charged him under the Juvenile Justice Act. This would mean he cannot be tried like the other five accused and will otherwise be sent to a correction home for a maximum of three years. The others may be awarded the death sentence.

According to Sanjay Gupta, Director of NGO Childhood Enhancement Though Training and Action (Chetna), the "useless" proposal based on one incident will have grave consequences for several other juveniles.

"Girls under the age of 18 years, who are forced to work in brothels, at present, are rescued and rehabilitated under the Juvenile Justice Act, but once the age is reduced to 16, police will arrest them and charge them with prostitution for no fault of theirs," Gupta told IANS.

"The reduction of age would certainly help the police as homeless juveniles are easy targets for them and can be easily implicated in false cases," he added.

His views were corroborated by lawyer Rebecca John who said that tinkering with the law would be contempt of the International Law of Human Rights and was a "terrible" move.

"You cannot let one case be the reason behind changing the law. This is a terrible move," she said, adding that the issue must be debated to prevent the government from reaching a hasty conclusion.

"I am for speedy justice for the victim, but this is an extreme measure to cope up with a single case," she added.

According to the lawyers and activists, the government urgently needs to uniformly define a juvenile and an adult.

"Different laws have different definitions of adult; a person can have consensual sex at 16 but can marry only at 18 and consume alcohol only when he/she turns 25. we should not rush into a decision under pressure," Ranjana Kumari, Director of Centre for Social Research, told IANS.

"... even if you reduce the age to 16 and then a 15 year-old commits a similar crime, would you again reduce the age to 14?" she asked.

So, should such juveniles who commit heinous crimes be let off just because of their age? The group`s opinions were divided.

Ranjana Kumari said that the punishment should be given according to the severity of the crime and not the age.

"In an exceptional case like the Delhi gang-rape, the juvenile may be given harsh punishment," she said.

Agreed lawyer H.S. Phoolka, who said that if a juvenile between the age of 16 to 18 years commits a heinous crime, the court can award a severe sentence irrespective of the age.

But as the debate cotinues, a public suit was filed in the Delhi High Court Wednesday on lowering the age of a juvenile.

Taking note of the petition, the Delhi High Court issued notice to the central government seeking to exclude from the purview of the Juvenile Justice Act those above 16 years committing serious crimes like rape and murder.

A division bench consisting of Chief Justice D. Murugesan and Justice V.K. Jain issued the notice through the ministries of parliamentary affairs and law and justice, and asked them to file their response by Feb 14.

Advocate R.K. Kapoor, who had filed the petion, said if juveniles above 16 years were involved in "heinous crime" like rape and murder, they should not be treated as juveniles and be given harsher punishment like adults.

But experts unanimously agree that the best solution was to provide proper care and help to juveniles so that they don`t turn into criminals.

"The Juvenile Justice Act is comprehensive and if implemented honestly can curb such incidents by providing timely help to juveniles who might turn into criminals. the problem is not with the act but with its implementation," said Gupta.

"The need of the hour is to make sure that existing provisions in the act are implemented," he added.

Agreed Phoolka, who said that the authorities, especially the police, need to play a proactive role and at the same time be sensitive towards juveniles - in particular those who are at conflict with law.