Participants at a conference on "Reassessing India's Juvenile Justice System" emphasised on the need to fully implement the Juvenile Justice Act, 2000 and the need for the State to provide enough manpower and infrastructure to take care of the aftercare programmes.
Many questions are being raised about the state of the Juvenile Justice System in India, especially following recent rape incidents allegedly involving juveniles in the national capital and elsewhere. To discuss this issue and various connected questions, Observer Research Foundation organised a conference “Reassessing India’s Juvenile Justice System” at its Delhi campus on 24 October 2013. Various members of civil society, lawyer fraternity, law enforcement departments and academia debated the current state of the juvenile justice system in India.
The conference was chaired by Mr. Surendra Singh, former Union Cabinet Secretary & Advisor, Observer Research Foundation. He began by noting some of the notions prevalent in society today. That juvenile delinquency is on the rise, and the reason for this is that the law as it stands today is not enough of a deterrent. He then raised some of the important questions for the panel to address in their presentations. Whether age is an appropriate criterion at all, to classify someone as a juvenile; and if so, what age is appropriate? Should there be a graded treatment for different ages, and different crimes? He also pointed to the conditions of reform homes for juveniles, where a vitiated atmosphere does not lead to the desired reform, but the opposite, turning children into hardened criminals by the time they are released.
Sharing his experience as Delhi Police Commissioner and earlier as Director General of Tihar Jail wherein he took special interests on education of juveniles, Mr. Neeraj Kumar went at great length to reflect on the efficacies of the Juvenile Justice Act. Calling the 2000 Act a “revolutionary” one, he stressed on the causes of juvenile delinquency to socio-economic reasons. According to him, most “juveniles” hailed from very poor homes, committing petty crimes to fund drug abuse. He then identified some problems with the Act, first being the sensitisation of the police in dealing with children. The second issue he flagged was that the Act does not adequately address the issue of repeat offenders, and whether a distinction should be made for repeat offenders? He also asked whether adequate resources were available to implement the Act in “letter and spirit”.
Mr. Amod Kanth, General Secretary, Prayas, and a former police officer, explained that the Juvenile Justice Act lays down the rights available to all children, giving legal recognition to two special categories, “children in need of care and protection” as well as “juveniles in conflict with the law”. The law aims to fulfil the “needs & rights” of children. He claimed that it is the “children in need of care and protection” that make up the bulk of those who make their way into the juvenilej system, often from very poor families. He said the State must protect these children, who need to be taken care of – and they should be stopped from becoming criminals at the earliest stage. He explained that the Act creates a distinct system of rights and enforcement for children. According to him, key problem that plagues the system is that at the very basic level, the law enforcement agencies were not able to make the distinction between the rights of a child and an adult. He claimed that Indian children are the “least criminal children” of the world and actual statistics on juvenile delinquency in India, compared to other countries, were very low. In such a situation, to reassess the Act would affect all children and potentially subjecting them to harsher punishments and the criminal justice system is improper. Mr. Kanth also praised the Act, calling it “progressive”, and called for its proper implementation. He pointed out that there were provisions in the Act like the “after-care programme” which were completely ignored by enforcement agencies.
Ms. Bharti Ali, Co-Director, HAQ: Centre of Child Rights, began by criticising the role that the media played in the aftermath of the recent Delhi Gang Rape incident. She explained that as a society our notions about the incident were distorted by the media. Throughout her presentation, she stressed upon having a proper understanding of various provisions of the law before we begin to debate and reassess them. She noted that one of the common misconceptions was about the difference between the minimum age of criminal responsibility and “juvenility”. She explained that there are various provisions of the Act like Individual Care Plans that enforcement agencies do not even know about and that the law does in fact provide graded treatment for juveniles and that the Juvenile Justice Board can use its discretion in deciding appropriately on a case-by-case basis. Ms. Ali said that the basis of judicial treatment of juveniles must be the “behaviour” and not the nature of the offence because the JJ Act is not retributive and was never meant to be. To support her argument, she pointed to the experience of the United States, which has shown that giving harsh punishments to children has not reduced juvenile crimes.
Mr. Arunav Patnaik, advocate, Supreme Court of India, gave examples of cases that he had worked on to highlight the improper working of the Juvenile Justice Act of 2000. The three examples he gave followed a common theme — juveniles involved in heinous crimes escaped punishment by virtue of the fact that they were recognised as “juveniles” by the law. He then raised some important questions. First was that in case it is found that the juvenile accused has a “tendency” to commit heinous crimes, what are the solutions that the system provides? Even if the number of juveniles involved in heinous crimes is very little, can we not address the psychological problems that lead to them? He went on to state that the Act does provide solutions to these problems, but the mechanisms and manpower required to institute them are not in place.
Mr. Vikram Dutt, Advisor, Udayan Care, began by saying that the reassessment of the Juvenile Justice System must be looked at from a sociological perspective. He described Arunav’s examples as just “aberrations” in the “implementation” of the system. Mr. Dutt explained that reassessing the system on the basis of these aberrations is improper when the problem lies not in the system itself but in its implementation. He gave the example of the Mental Health Programme which the Juvenile Justice Act mandatorily requires for the rehabilitation of juveniles, but has not been implemented at all. Praising the Indian system, he agreed with other speakers in saying that it does a “marvellous job” but stressed upon the need for creating “infrastructure of awareness” for its proper implementation. Lastly, he spoke about the needs of “children in need of care & protection” a classification recognised and protected by the Juvenile Justice Act of 2000. For bringing these children onto an equal platform as all children, it is important to actively implement the “after-care programmes” which extend up to the age of 21.
Mr. Surendra Singh summed up the conference by echoing the views of all the panellists in bemoaning the poor implementation of the existing system. In reply to a question asked from the audience, Ms. Bharati Ali replied, “We haven’t even implemented the Law, before we get into a stage of wanting a change. We have to first implement, assess where we are failing, then bring a change in those areas.”
(This report is prepared by Arjun Chatterjee, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)