How Treating 16-18 Year Olds Like Adult Criminals, Can Backfire

Posted on May 30, 2015 in Society

By Arati Nair:

In Hyderabad, an 8-year-old girl was raped by a minor who was her neighbour. The case was reported days after the incident as parents were reluctant to come out with the complaint.

A 16-year-old girl returning from a marriage function was gang-raped by five minor boys in Gujarat.

A 6-year-old, visiting her grandmother in Bannerghatta was raped by two of her cousins while playing outside the house.

juvenile justice

The national discourse surrounding rape in India, when it broke the shackles of taboo, snowballed into an affair of incessant debates, thanks to the persistent media glare. The civil society, NGOs, legislators, police officials and the aam aadmi have all been quick to point fingers and distance themselves from a system that breeds such reprehensible elements of perversity.

It all came to a head with the infamous Nirbhaya case of December 2012 in which one of the accused, a minor, was convicted and tried by the Juvenile Justice Board, earning a sentence of three years- a punishment which was deemed by a large section of people as far too lenient for such an inhuman act. Subsequent reportage of cases of sexual assaults or rapes perpetrated by minors has only aggravated public discontent.

True, the incidents mentioned at the beginning of this article warrant a strict handling of wrongdoers, irrespective of age. However, retributive justice has backfired in countries where a stringent juvenile justice system is already prevalent. In her book, Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison, Nell Bernstein explains how juvenile incarceration facilities in the US become breeding grounds for crime and sexual exploitation. Serving a sentence in prison would traumatise the child, making him/her vulnerable to drugs, criminal gang-culture and sexual abuse. The juvenile homes are hardly an improvement over prisons. These centres are ill-equipped with actuarial risk assessment tools that could identify repeat offenders or rehabilitate them.

Numerous scientific studies show that in adolescents, the part of the brain that controls the ability to take decisions or correctly assess risks is not fully developed and so, these youngsters sometimes become reckless thrill-seekers, ignorant of the consequences of their actions.

The scenario in India is complex. Here, more than ninety percent of rapes occur within the household or familiar places, committed by trusted persons. Most children accused of rape have themselves been victims of sexual and physical abuse in the past.

The incestuous rape of two sisters by their brothers in Wadala, with their mother as the abettor, portrays the degradation of moral standards and the catastrophe unleashed by the deep-entrenched, skewed ideals of patriarchy. Corporal punishment is still rampant in many schools in India, which fuels resentment and bitterness among children. A section of the RTE Act which strives to negate this practice has been shoddily implemented at best. The National Policy on Child Labour and the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act have remained mere archived documents with inefficient execution.

Enough has been said about the proposed amendments to the Juvenile Justice Act which, if enforced, would treat children aged 16-18 at par with adult criminals. Playing to a frenzied gallery, the government, in an unprecedented show of assertiveness, pronounced a law that would dole out punishment to the perpetrators of ‘heinous crimes’ (rape, murder etc.) – starting with children. With the ex-UPA Minister for Women and Child Development, Krishna Tirath having suggested similar changes in the existing law in 2013, Shashi Tharoor’s condemnation on the floor of the house reeks of opportunism and hypocrisy. None of the political dispensations in India have sincerely embraced the problems of our children or looked for long-term solutions.

The government, in its infinite wisdom, must first peruse the causes of failure of these wide-ranging legislations. Our oversight in this regard is glaring. As a family, as a society, as a nation we have failed to nurture the happiness of our children.