Thursday, December 24, 2015

Commentary: Are tougher laws on juvenile crime the solution?

The two houses of the parliament in India have been unusually tardy in passing legislative bills of late because of the confrontational stance taken by the opposition and an inept government unable to negotiate its way through. But the entire lot have come to what may go down as a hasty consensus on the issue of juvenile crime. Thus the Juvenile Justice Amendment Bill lowering the age of a juvenile from 18 to 16 years was passed in the Rajya Sabha after opposition parties like the Congress and the TMC changed their earlier stand of referring the amendment to a Select Committee for further deliberation. 

The case and the circumstances that prompted the decision are as follows: the entire nation was rocked by protests and demonstrations in December 2012 for several weeks after six men gang raped a medical student in a Delhi bus and then tried to kill her. Jyoti Singh, travelling with a male friend on a private bus was raped by six men on the bus, including the driver and her friend was beaten up by them. The 23-year-old physiotherapy student died 13 days later in a hospital in Singapore from her injuries that indicated unusual cruelty on the part of the rapists. 

Recently, one of the men found guilty of gang raping the medical student has been released which has led to widespread protests in Delhi. The juvenile, the bus driver’s conductor, was six months from his 18th birthday at the time and as a result tried as minor and given the maximum sentence for his age of three years in a reform center in August 2013. The other five accused were all adults and were given death sentences by hanging though one of them hanged himself in prison in 2013. 

That the young accused is now scot-free after a 3-year confinement period has ruffled up several quarters of the society including the Indian media that loses no chance to whip up hysteria. This is the background to the unholy haste shown by the upper house. The statistic however gives little basis for such hysteria despite the emotional furor – data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows that Union Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi’s claim about juvenile crime being the fastest rising segment is only part of the story. As a percent of total crimes, juvenile crimes have remained static at 1.2 over the last three years. They also show that recidivism, or the propensity to become a repeat offender, is higher among adults than juveniles. 

Given the speedy legislation by a parliament reluctant to move otherwise, this article by Brinda Karat takes cognizance of the many aspects that have gone into the supposedly corrective legislation. She also provides a broader perspective on the society’s response to juvenile crime that should have been considered by our law makers who often tend to flow unthinkingly with the popular sentiment. 

Finally, consider this - The American film-maker Leslee Udwin, maker of India’s Daughter, a widely publicized BBC documentary on the December 2012 incident which shook India was able to interact with the juvenile and has kept track of the case. She told the press recently that the head of Prayas, the Correction Home for Juveniles in New Delhi, informed her that the illiterate boy had become literate, a good cook and a tailor too during his three years there. He regretted his act but was afraid of being assaulted if he was released. This surely indicates how fraught and delicate the juvenile cases can be.

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