The spate of horrific news from schools across the country does not seem to subside. The most recent incident, of course, is the mysterious death of a Class 9 student in the school toilet in northeast Delhi’s Karawal Nagar. It is suspected that the teen died of internal injuries resulting from assault by a group of friends.
Earlier this year in Lucknow, Hrithik Sharma, a Class 1 student, was stabbed on the back, chest and left eye by a girl in Class 7, in anticipation of a holiday that the school would inevitably declare in the wake of such a mishap! The girl was apprehended and later sent to the Juvenile Justice Board, which released her on interim bail.
The Lucknow incident was almost a chilling replay of the 2017 murder of 7-year-old Pradyuman Thakur by a 16-year-old senior in Gurgaon’s Ryan International School. While the child’s murder horrified everyone, it was mystifying that the spoilt son of an affluent, upper class family in the national capital could cold-bloodedly kill a child, merely in order to push back his exam dates.
It is also increasingly seen that the offenders, as in the Brightland and Ryan International cases, do not conform to the commonly perceived profile of juvenile delinquents. Unlike Nirbhaya’s ‘minor’ rapist and killer, who had reportedly fled his severely impoverished home as a child, the stabber of Hrithik and the murderer of Pradyuman have no apparent reason to be pushed into the murky world of crime, except perhaps through some mental derangement, jilted love or plain psychopathy.
Perhaps that is why on December 20th, the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) had ruled that the 16-year-old in the Pradyuman case will be tried in court as an adult, not as a juvenile. He appeared to be mature enough to understand the consequences of his actions, according to the JJB. After arresting him, the CBI did not accept his appeal for bail in Gurgaon court.
NCRB data: What it says and what it hides
It is not just the odd case of Pradyuman or Hrithik. What is extremely worrying for us as a nation and society is that juvenile crimes — committed by youth aged 18 or below — have reached alarming proportions.
In 2016, there were 35,849 cases reported under “Juveniles in Conflict with Law”, which did signal a decline from the 38,455 cases in 2014. However, last year’s reported cases were an increase over 2015’s reported cases of 33,433, according to netindian. Most of those accused have been accused of theft and burglary. Many were involved in rape cases.
Crime rates under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in 2016 were reported to be highest in the state of Uttar Pradesh at 9.5%; Madhya Pradesh reported a rate of 8.9%, Maharashtra 8.8% and Kerala 8.7%.
Delhi City accounted for 38.8% of the total IPC crime reported in the cities. The next was Bengaluru (8.9%) followed by Mumbai (7.7%).
This data however has to be analysed with caution, as experts warn that the documentation is not “nuanced.” Speaking to Indiaspend, Swagata Raha, senior research assistant, Centre for Child and the Law (CCL), National Law School of India, Bangalore, pointed to the fact that data on crime in India was based on first information reports (FIRs) filed by the police and not actual conviction. Thus, for instance, some cases that are documented as “rape” by minors might be only consensual love affairs or even merely exploratory sex cases, unacceptable to family members and hence reported.
Changes in the Juvenile Justice Act
Nirbhaya’s juvenile killer typified child delinquents and the social conditions that created them – poverty, bad upbringing, lack of education and escape from home into the big, bad world at an immature age. The appalling brutality of his crime, though, did turn the tide towards toughening juvenile justice laws, which has actually proved beneficial to serve the ends of justice for Pradyuman’s parents.
The Nirbhaya case pushed forward The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, which lowered the age of juveniles to be tried for “heinous” crimes such as rape, murder and dacoity-cum-murder (that would require at least seven years of imprisonment) from 18 years to 16 years.
Thus the Juvenile Justice Act replaced the existing Indian juvenile delinquency law, Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000, and created an option for trying juveniles in the age group of 16 to 18 as either adults or children, if they were involved in heinous offences.
Provision was made for a Juvenile Justice Board, comprised of sociologists and psychologists, who would decide whether the juvenile should be treated as a child or an adult. “Judicial Waiver System” allows treatment of juveniles, in certain conditions in the adult criminal justice system so that they can be punished as adults.
How is juvenile crime addressed under the new law?
The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 is applicable to children charged with crime, and also to those who need governmental care – even for a brief time. Hence, the law offers mechanisms that include adoption, sponsorship as well as foster care. This rule is child-friendly and assures that juveniles should not be subjected to harsh laws.
An adult can be kept under custody for months, with a code explaining how adults can face trial. However, for children in conflict with law, the courts offer more lenient and child-friendly guidelines. The entire system is controlled by the JJB and also ensures that the children are not coupled with offenders in regular jails. It also helps the juveniles to get reintegrated into society after having completed the tenure of their punishment.
If a child is in conflict with the law, he should not get a death or life imprisonment sentence without the possibility of release at some point.
Possible penalties and punishments
The JJB can give the following punishments for ‘petty’ as well as ‘serious offences’, according to the Juvenile Justice Act. It can
- Issue a warning to the child
- Let the child not be detained but go home, while the parents are counselled
- Make it mandatory for the child to attend group counselling sessions
- Make it compulsory for the child to undertake community service under supervision
- Charge a fine on the guardians or parents
- Release the child on probation. The parents or guardians would have to execute a bond for three years. This would not only include surety but also take up responsibility for a child’s behaviour. It can be handed over to a ‘fit person’ or ‘facility’ that might be a responsible person, government organization or NGO.
- Transfer the child to a Special Home for almost three years
Otherwise, the JJB can even send the child to a Place of Safety rather than the Special Home if it feels that the child cannot be safe in the home or in other places. The principle of institutionalisation would be a last resort method, only under exceptional situations. Otherwise, the JJB could give orders for the child to attend school or vocational training.
Points to ponder
Merely arresting and punishing criminals is not the solution, but rethinking the entire social structure is important.
Lawyer and activist Flavia Agnes is firm that juvenile crime points to a “breakdown in our society” and lack of rehabilitation methods. “Okay, so we punish 10, 20, 100, are we going to have a better society?” she asked on NDTV.
It is also important to rehabilitate juveniles in order to bring down the incidence of crimes such as violence against women in the long run. When juveniles are tried as adults in criminal courts and imprisoned rather than sent to rehabilitation homes, it tends to increase the cases of recidivism, or repeat offences, explained Vrinda Grover, lawyer and human rights activist while talking to The Indian Express
While Pradyuman’s killer would be viewed by many as ‘almost an adult’, trying children for crimes is different. “Childhood and adolescence are perceived as being indisputably different from adulthood, particularly in terms of their biological, psychological, and social aspects,” as experts from Legestify.com write in The Better India.
A child’s social, cultural and psychological circumstances make an impact on his behaviour. “We see juvenile offenders trapped helplessly in the criminal justice system of India.” said Akshat Singhal, Founder of Legistify, which seeks to help such children.