Why the young are different

The juvenile justice system should aim to reform, rather than punish, offenders

The anguish and anger evoked by the sheer brutality of the gangrape in Delhi has led to the demand that the accused be subject to the most severe punishment. Voices have been raised seeking the death penalty and chemical or physical castration. As one of the accused is below 18 years of age and cannot be "punished" due to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children )Act, 2000 (JJA), there is a demand for amending this law by lowering the cut-off age for defining who a child is and/ or providing for the exclusion of children committing violent offences from the JJA and the imposition of life imprisonment without parole.

In such an emotionally charged atmosphere, it is politically expedient to introduce the changes to assuage the public sentiments. But will women be safer after the demanded changes are made?

Retribution and deterrence are the traditional objectives of punishment, though now, reformation during imprisonment and reformation without punishment are accepted as better approaches to prevention of crime, especially in the case of children. In India, we have accepted the policy of "no imprisonment for children" for any offence since the Children Act in 1960, which was followed as a model by other states that enacted their own such acts after 1960. This approach was uniformly applied to the whole of India by the Juvenile Justice Act, 1986. Spurred by the recommendation of the UN committee under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the JJA, 2000, raised the age of juvenility from 16 to 18 years for boys, and girls till the age of 18 were already covered under the law. With this increase, there was apprehension that lakhs of cases would be added within the ambit of the juvenile justice system. However, those fears proved to be baseless, as crime committed by children increased by less than 8,000 cases, from 9,267 in 2000 to 16,509 in 2001. The rate of crime by children (that is, the number of children committing offences per lakh of the population) has not seen a substantial increase in the last decade (it has gone from 0.9 in 2000 to 2.1 in 2011). Hence, the clamour to lower the age of juvenility is not supported by crime data relating to children in India.

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