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Juvenile justice debate: reducing the age won’t solve the problem as the rot is deeper

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What can be furious than fact that a person, who has committed a serious crime, can walk free only on the basis of his date of birth? 1 day on either side of a cutoff age limit can be matter of death and life. If one is 17 years 364 year old when he committed the crime, he can be kept for maximum of 3 year in juvenile reform centre, while if he committed the crime on very next day he will be treated as adult and can be hanged. What if he commits crime at 12:00 midnight? Will he be tried as adult or as juvenile?

These questions show absurdity of following technical rules. Outraged by recent incidents and with public pressure of demand of lowering age, the Juvenile Justice Bill 2014 proposed that juvenile from age 16-18 can be treated as adult for heinous crimes if the juvenile justice board thinks that crime was committed not in innocence but with adult mentality.

This bill is based on fact that 64% of all juvenile crimes were by this age group. But problem is that India has shortage of psychologists and chances are that cases will be decided not on basis of mental condition of convict, but on basis of public pressure. And question still remains, what if he has committed crime at 15 years 364 days? Still he can’t be given harsh sentence just because of 1 day difference.

Some people propose removal of age limit altogether as in case of many Arab nations. But Arab nations are following middle age inhuman practices like stoning to death. Can we, who take pride in calling themselves civilized society, take pride of hanging a 10 years old child?

Problem is that we have misunderstood the concept of punishment and mixed the idea of reform with revenge. With the invention of concept of state, the state had taken away all the right of violence from citizens and established its monopoly over violence, and it distributed limited power among its various organs.

It was a necessary deviation from previous personal revenge system based on ‘might is right’ and only the powerful could have been the winner. Idea was to establish rule based system to protect the weak and prevent the chaos in society and create the framework for “survival and growth” of society.

With the passage of time, justice, humanity and reform took the central stage in judicial system. Gandhi ji had said “eye for eye will make whole world blind”. In this world, where perception of right and wrong vary so much that few individuals demand blasphemy punishable with death penalty and on other hand we have activists demanding that death penalties should be stopped for all cases, revenge can’t be driving force for punishment. Only reform-reform of individual and society should be the main idea.

A question is often raised against idea of reforming a “criminal” that it will amount to injustice to victims. They say that he must certainly be penalized for his crime and then only true “justice” will be served. Again this idea of justice has been wrongly misinterpreted.

Justice is not how much harm can be caused to criminal but how much loss caused to “victim” can be reversed or compensated. Taking away what we can’t give is not justice at all. But punishing the criminal doesn’t help the victim, or may be it does. Emotion is basic attribute of human. Revenge will always be part of one’s sub-consciousness. In absence of strict punishment a “victim” will feel that he has not been punished in accordance to his scale of crime. And if this idea is resonated by large section of society, they will lose faith in judicial system and mob justice will start.

State should always keep tracking the mentality of society to see how much society has been evolved and accordingly modify laws to make it coherent with idea of reform and moving away from idea of revenge. In medieval time, death by torture was norm but the society today has been evolved enough to discard this inhuman practice.

This leaves us to our second idea behind the punishment and i.e. reform.

Deterrence is essential component of reform-reforming society towards less crime. A reformed individual will be asset not liability to society. But our current judicial and prison system lead to his dissociation from civilized society and put him back in trap into “criminal society”.

1.5 lakh undertrails are imprisoned in various jails in country, some for charges of petty crime due to lack of judicial help. Many may be innocent among them. These individuals after serving sentence or even after proving to be innocent are not accepted back in society. With very little chances to get employed in our society, they are pushed again into criminal trap. There is very little or no work done in field of reforming the prisoners and keeping their unoccupied mind busy.

In prisons, small thieves come in contact with members of criminal gangs and become part of organized crime. To reduce crime in society, we need reforms in prison and re-rehabilitation of prisoners so that their chances of re-offence can be minimized.

Going back to question that after what age a person should be tried as adult, Psychologists argue that teenage is the most important phase that have long lasting impact on person’s thinking. Child is learning to differentiate between right and wrong and brain is still under-developed. Legal community says that juveniles are often unable to understand the adult judicial system and they are not in position to defend themselves.

It is true that some people mature earlier and some take more time. On average, 18 is considered to be age when one enters adulthood. That’s why nearly every country has kept this age to be enrolled as a voter or to get driving license. As stated by standing committee on Juvenile justice bill, reduction in age from 18 to 16 is not backed by a strong data to support the move. Until we have a data to back the move of reduction of age it is better that current age limit remain unaltered.

A bigger question that needs to be discussed is that if by not punishing juvenile and even providing him assistance for rehabilitation aren’t we incentivizing crime? Will it lead to increase in rate of crime by juveniles after knowing that they can’t be given harsh punishment?

Unless a person has developed a criminal mind, no one want to spend time in jail (and in reform centre) even for a month. Lack of fear among criminals isn’t because of lack of harsh punishment, but because of lack of punishment. We have a very weak judicial system and ineffective Investigation methods and agencies that leads to very low conviction rates and that too take very long judicial time.

Conviction rate under IPC in 2013 was only 40% and there were total of 80 lakh pending cases. It’s high time for us to improve our judicial systems for speedy trials and improve the efficiency of our police force so that conviction rate can be increased. And as far as juvenile crimes are concerned, we need to keep our faith in society and believe that he hasn’t yet developed criminal mentality. And that’s why it is more important to not to try him as adult and put in adult prison.

Putting juvenile with other prisoners will decrease his chance to reform and chance is there that his “immature” mind after contact with other criminals will be attracted to criminal world.

But at the same time we need to do away with black and white idea of juvenile and adult, and should widen the “time period” for which juvenile will be kept in reform centre in exceptional cases, if doubt exist that he hasn’t been reformed and can be proved to be threat to society, especially if he is re-offender, so that extended period can be utilized for his “re-rehabilitation”.

But this should be done without any prejudice or public pressure and under strict advice of psychologists, on case to case basis. Basic idea of reform shouldn’t be forgotten in this and it must be kept in mind that longer the period of its isolation from society lesser the chances of his re-rehabilitation.

Along with it data should be collected to know about the effectiveness of juvenile centres by tracking how many of convicted juveniles are again tried/ punished after release. It is true that there has been substantial increase in number of criminal act by juveniles but it still remain at 1-1.2% of total criminal acts, and most of these around 52% were either illiterate or only primary educated while 78% of those belonged to the families with less than 50,000 per capita income.

Only in 0.6% cases family annual income was above 3 lakh. This data show the vulnerability of socially and economically backward children to be involved in criminal acts and this raises hope that with proper rehabilitation and guidance they can be again inducted in society.

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