At long last, the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday afternoon took up discussion on the controversial Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2014. Post-Nirbhaya gang rape, it seeks to amend the law so that the accused between 16 and 18 years facing trial for heinous crimes can be treated and convicted as adults. Heinous crimes are defined as any offence punishable for seven or more years of imprisonment. It includes rape, murder, gang rape, dacoity, kidnapping, drug trafficking, sedition, etc. Now, these are indeed heinous crimes and should attract severe punishment prescribed under the law. The urgency to pass the above amendment arose because two days ago, the teenager who was convicted for the gang rape of Nirbhaya in Delhi three years ago was released from the children’s prison. Despite a last-minute attempt by a few civil society activists and others, a vacation bench of the Supreme Court declined to provide relief. It did not agree to even extend the detention of the juvenile beyond December 20, the date on which he was set to be released. He now walks a free man. Emotion and sentiment cannot, and should not, sway the courts. The vacation judge was clear that so long as the law treated him as a juvenile he could not be detained beyond the three-year period. Other accused in the case were given far more stringent punishments, including death. Though this newspaper has argued that punishment must fit the severity of the crime, and that anyone a day less than eighteen on the day of committing rape or murder does not deserve lenient punishment as against the one a day older than eighteen. Indeed, in the badlands of Bihar and UP, it is not uncommon for criminal gangs to hire juveniles to commit murder or dacoity for payment of good money to their payments, given that at the most the child-criminals, if convicted, are guaranteed to come out of reformation homes after three years. It is argued that if the 16-18-year-olds are treated as adults and punished accordingly they would turn into hardened criminals in jails, since the latter were actually ‘criminal producing factories’. This objection is easily disposed of by detaining 16-18-year-olds convicted of heinous crimes in separate detention centers where special efforts to reform and rehabilitate them can be undertaken. But we find it unacceptable that anyone who is old enough to commit murder or rape ought to enjoy the benefit of a lenient sentence merely because his calendar age is a few days or weeks below the 18-year cut-off. Admittedly, the Justice J S Verma Committee, set up after the Nirbhaya gang rape, did not recommend the lowering of age of children even for heinous crimes, arguing that it would put all children at risk. It was feared that even those children who indulged in ‘consensual sexual experimentation’ could be at risk for being tried under the lower-age law. Now, this fear is actually about the abuse of the law, rather than of the law itself. Any law can be abused. Ultimately, what matters is the sincerity and efficiency of the law-enforcers. Having made stringent changes in the laws concerning eve-teasing and harassment of women at work place, etc., for instance, there are now genuine fears that innocent males can be wrongly accused and humiliated either through premeditated design or even due to a misunderstanding. Efficacy of laws eventually depends on the good sense of law-enforcers.
Therefore, by bringing the age of juveniles from the present 18 to 16 years for the most heinous crimes, the responsibility of the police, prosecution and others involved in law enforcement would increase further. But the fact that the law would treat them as adults if they indulged in these specific crimes would act as a further deterrent for anyone aged 16 or above. We must note here that both boys and girls reach sexual adulthood rather early now thanks to physiological changes in general that have taken place in all societies across the world. Maybe it is due to the kind and quality of food; maybe exposure to 24×7 media contributes to making children sexually aware and active before they attain adulthood as per the prescribed law. Whatever it is, we believe that the age for serious crimes such as murder, rape ought to be lowered to 16, though keeping the convicted ‘children’ in separate detention homes is a precaution that can be taken for the sake of their likely reform and rehabilitation. Meanwhile, whatever the fate of the amendment, still being debated in the Rajya Sabha at the time of writing, it was never on the cards that the child-rapist involved in the Nirbhaya gang rape would be denied freedom. Criminal laws, mercifully, still apply prospectively.