The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2014, now cleared by the Union cabinet, gives the Juvenile Justice Board the power to decide if a juvenile above 16 years, involved in a heinous crime, should be tried in a regular court. This is a welcome move coming in the wake of shocking crimes involving juveniles — the most infamous being the Nirbhaya gang rape of 2012, where the worst perpetrator was allegedly a juvenile offender, due to walk free soon after a three-year stint in a remand home.
Such crimes, including one recently in Delhi where CCTV captures five teenagers stabbing a youth to death, have sparked debate on the need to change punishments given to youth old enough to know the nature of violent crimes they're participating in. The 2014 Juvenile Bill takes note of this debate and moves forward in modernising applicable laws. There are global precedents, one of the most powerful being Britain's 1993 Jamie Bulger murder case, where two 11-year-olds were tried as adults for the kidnapping, torture and murder of a toddler. It is high time India too evolved its stand on juvenile offenders. Simply lodging them in corrective homes for a short while — like the three-year 'good behaviour' course at a reform home awarded to juveniles in the Shakti Mills gang-rape case — is not good enough.
The authorities must have the power to decide whether juvenile offenders committing clearly adult crimes merit trial like adults, noting the caveat that such offenders shouldn't be given death or lifetime penalties. Alongside, the 2014 Bill seeks to strengthen punishment for crimes against children. It targets those recruiting children for armed conflict and seeks to widen notions of corporal punishment to include verbal abuse with physical hurt, punishing offenders with dismissal from child-related institutions and punishing institutions with jail terms and fines. As social media driven reports like a teacher savagely caning visually-affected children in an Andhra Pradesh school come to light, the widening of punishments for those harming children is welcome. In addition, the Bill seeks to penalise perpetrators and abettors of ragging with jail terms and regulate adoption to curb child trafficking.
Altogether, the new Juvenile Justice Bill seeks to improve understandings of vulnerability and offence. This is a brave new step towards protecting the helpless — and punishing those old enough to know better than to commit appallingly violent crimes.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.