September 29, 2013

Jung and Justice for Juveniles

Jung and Justice for Juveniles

 Our new lieutenant governor believes that the age of majority with regard to criminal actions should be lowered, he told the media this week. “These days, young people grow up much faster,” PTI quoted Mr. Najeeb Jung, who was appointed the Lt. Governor of Delhi a few months ago. Mr. Jung’s responsibilities include overseeing police and education.

Currently, under the Juvenile Justice Act 2000 (JJA), the age of majority is eighteen years, which was part of India’s obligations under the 1992 UN Convention of the Child’s Rights (CRC). This became a sensitive topic when it was found out that one of the men responsible for the Delhi gang-rape case was only months away from turning eighteen. This week he was found guilty and sentenced to the maximum penalty under the JJA, which is three years at a reform center. This decision has been met with protests, and criticism from many politicians and activists. Mr. Jung’s statement comes in the context of these facts.

He’s not alone in this belief. This year, the Supreme Court has dismissed several PILs asking for revision of the JJA. Mr. Subramanian Swamy, a leader of the BJP party, had filed a PIL in the Supreme Court asking for a reinterpretation of the law so it takes into account a person’s mental and intellectual capability, not their age, to determine whether he or she should be tried as an adult. According to its website, the Supreme Court has rejected this prayer but Mr. Swamy indicates that he is getting ready to appeal the decision. If he is successful and such a reinterpretation is recognized, India will be in violation of the CRC.

“People are saying the age limit should be brought down to 16. Even if the age of a juvenile were lowered to 14, there would be nothing wrong with that. There is need to review it,” PTI reports Mr. Jung as saying. The Justice Verma committee, formed last year to look into the issues surrounding violence against women and recommend legal steps to improve the current situation — a decidedly grim one — advised for several legal measures to be taken, but advised strongly against lowering the age of majority. Meanwhile activists and politicians have been unrelenting in their quest to do exactly that.

It is true that the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports that juvenile crimes have gone up 40% between 2001 and 2010. In the same period, rapes by juveniles have gone up 50%, murder is up by a third and kidnappings of women and girls nearly five times. These figures are disturbing and seem to support the views of Mr. Swamy and Mr. Jung, but many of those working with juvenile delinquents don’t see it that way.

“The NCRB statistics actually prove that there is something wrong with the way juveniles are growing up in our country,” says Mr. Anand Grover, counsel for the Lawyers Collective and best known for his work in the re-interpretation of section 377 IPC. Mr. Grover works actively with juveniles in his practice.

Sociologists believe that the rise in juvenile crimes is due to a variety of factors that can’t be addressed by simply lowering the age of majority. These factors include the government’s inability to curb increase in poverty; failure of the educational system causing young people to abandon schools; increasing income disparity; domestic factors such as violence at home and failure of parental units.

Mr. Grover explains, “The law, insofar as it is concerned with child criminality, is interested in prevention first. The second thing is to see if reform is possible, then we can look at punishment. This idea that young people are growing up faster is misguided. They may have more information but that doesn’t mean they have the ability to process or understand this information.”

NCRB data also indicates that most juvenile delinquents are from low-income families and/or a marginalized stratum of society. Studies on juveniles including studies conducted by UNICEF also show that neglected children and juveniles are easy prey to criminality. “Look at the profiles of the Mumbai rapists: they’re completely out of social norms —they don’t have jobs, their parents don’t have jobs,” says Mr. Grover, “With our economy cracking up, these kids are in a position where they have no stake in society or even means to develop a stake. How can we apportion blame on children who have nothing to look forward to at all?”

Sociologists and lawyers alike are also in agreement that lowering the age of majority will have little effect on juvenile crime rates, and in fact may have little affect on India’s crime rates on a whole. In general, most juveniles are booked for petty crimes such as theft — the 2012 NCRB data shows that juveniles committed 4% of rapes in India.  “Individual incidences cannot be the reason to call for a change in the law,” says Mr. Grover.

There are also numerous studies that stand against clubbing juveniles with adult and often hardened offenders. Many worry that this approach, along with harsher sentencing and the increasing number of juveniles whose bail is rejected thus causing them to remain in pretrial detention, will backfire and result in increase in juvenile offenders instead.

Recent studies show that a welfare based approach, where the juvenile is brought back into the folds of society through reform, works better to reduce delinquency. Tripti Tandon, also with the Lawyers’ Collective, who works with juveniles says, “A young person’s involvement in crimes can be on account of many factors, and these factors may be turned around through a system of education, reform, support and encouragement. This is the philosophy behind the JJA and I think it continues to hold.” Ms. Tandon adds, “The views of our politicians is extremely hypocritical. On one hand they refuse to entertain lowering the age by which a person may be sexually active — here they say they want to protect the children— but when it comes to something so serious as crime and facing punishment in the criminal justice system, then they want fourteen year olds to be treated as adults. Then they don’t see the implications of making fourteen-year-olds face life imprisonment or capital punishment?”

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