It is unfortunate that the government seems determined to introduce legal provisions to ensure that children between the ages of 16 and 18 are tried as adults if they commit heinous offences such as murder and rape. Ever since a juvenile offender was given a ‘light’ sentence in the Delhi gang rape case of 2012 under the existing child-friendly laws, there has been a clamor to treat juveniles involved in heinous crimes as adults. A fresh Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill introduced in the Lok Sabha last year contained clauses that many child rights activists and groups disapproved of. A Standing Committee of Parliament recommended a review and reconsideration of all clauses that sought to carve out an exception for children in the 16-18 age group and subject them to the rigors of regular criminal procedure. However, the amended Bill now cleared by the Cabinet retains the clause that provides that when a heinous crime is committed by one in this age group, the Juvenile Justice Board will assess whether the crime has been committed as a ‘child’ or as an ‘adult’. The trial would take place on the basis of this assessment. The present framework classifies offences as petty, serious and heinous and treats each category under a different process. The government claims that since this assessment will be done with the help of psychologists and social experts, the rights of the juvenile would be protected. It remains to be seen if enough numbers of such professionals would be available across the country to make this work.
It should not be forgotten that making children face an adult criminal court would mar the prospect of their rehabilitation. The Supreme Court has not seen any special reason to amend the present juvenile law. Nor did the Justice J.S. Verma Committee, which made far-reaching recommendations on the legal framework for treating sexual offences, suggest such changes. The government should stick by the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which treats everyone up to 18 as a child. To the government’s credit, it has held some consultations with stakeholders before finalizing its latest draft. It has heeded the Parliamentary Committee’s objection to Clause 7, and dropped the arbitrary provision that a person who had committed an offence when aged between 16 and 18 but was apprehended only after crossing the age of 21 would be treated and tried as an adult. However, this is not enough. The government would do well to drop its attempt to have a differential system for those involved in ‘heinous offences’. Instead, it should pursue the other forward-looking aspects of the bill, which has welcome features for the care and protection of children that can help them significantly through provisions such as those for foster homes and a better-regulated adoption mechanism.