Decks cleared for 16-year-old offenders to be tried under adult laws

New Delhi: The Lok Sabha, or Lower House of India’s Parliament on Thursday, 7 May passed the bill amending the Juvenile Justice Act, paving the way for children in the 16-18 age group to be tried as adults if they commit heinous crimes. The bill is now likely to be taken up in the Rajya Sabha on Monday, 11 May. 

The amended Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2014, would replace the existing Juvenile Justice Act, 2000. It was passed after the government agreed to delete Clause 7 which said that “any person, who is apprehended after completing the age of 21 years, for committing any serious or heinous offence when such person was between the age of 16 to 18 years, then he shall, subject to the provisions of this Act, be tried as an adult.” Under the new law there will be no provision for death sentence or life imprisonment.

India’s ministry of women and child development introduced the new law in the Lok Sabha in August 2014 but it was referred to the standing committee which recommended keeping the legally defined age of juvenile at 18 years. However, the government still went ahead to reduce the age of juvenile offenders to 16 years when found involved in a heinous crime.

Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi underlined that under the proposed law, any juvenile aged between 16 years and 18 years will stay in Borstal, an institution meant for housing adolescent offenders, till the age of 21 years whatever be the sentence. At the age of 21 years, their behaviour will be assessed and if an offender has reformed, his sentence may be curtailed. Their cases will be tried by a Juvenile Justice Board, which will include a sociologist and a child rights activist. She said another positive aspect of the proposed law related to adoptions for foster care, wherein families can take custody of children to look after them and educate them, without really adopting them. Funding for it will be made by the government, Gandhi said.

Opposition members opposed the proposal to raise the age bar, expressing apprehensions about misuse and violation of rights of children by the new law which is being enacted against the backdrop of the involvement of a 16-year-old in the 2012 gang-rape case of a student in Delhi on a moving bus. However, Maneka Gandhi said she has tried to be “pro-child” and made efforts to strike a “fine balance” between justice to victims and rights of children.

The new bill clearly defines and classifies offences as petty, serious and heinous, and defines differentiated processes for each category. 

At least 42 official amendments were moved by the government to the bill which were adopted, while all the amendments moved by opposition members like Shashi Tharoor (Congress) and N K Premchandran (RSP) were negated.

Maneka Gandhi said the new law was intended to be a “deterrent” to ensure that juveniles refrain from crimes and avoid spoiling their lives. Justifying the need for the new law, she said according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), around 28,000 juveniles had committed various crimes in 2013 and of them, 3887 had allegedly committed heinous crimes. She also cited a recent Supreme Court order wherein the Apex court had favoured a relook at the law in view of the growing number of juveniles involved in heinous crimes. The minister said she had prepared the bill after exhaustive consultations, including with judges who tried the Delhi gang-rape case.

Rejecting the contention by opposition that the recommendations of the parliamentary Standing Committee were disregarded, she said 11 out of 13 recommendations have been accepted.

The minister rejected the opposition contention that the age of 16 years was too less to be tried under laws meant for adults and violative of international conventions.

She said under the global conventions, definition of age for such crimes is contextual and depends on economic, social and other conditions prevailing in a particular country. Giving examples, she said such age criteria in England and Australia is 10 years while in Argentina it is 16 years.

To concerns expressed by some members that the new law may be misused against the poor, ‘adivasis’ and other deprived sections of the society, the Minister said most of the crimes are committed against the poor people and she was trying to ensure justice to them. 

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