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Should children be tried as adults over sex crimes? In India, following some recent cases where juveniles were found guilty of rape and against a backdrop of growing public outrage over sexual violence, the answer from politicians appears to be yes.
India’s new minister of women and child welfare has proposed amending the Juvenile Justice Act to open the way for children under 18 accused of rape, murder, and other serious crimes to be prosecuted in regular criminal courts.
While the government needs to do much more to protect India’s women and children from sexual violence, the political leadership should not opt for knee-jerk solutions where deeper reforms are needed. To ensure justice, the government cannot lend itself to any other form of rights violation.
Juvenile justice should focus on reform rather than retribution. India should not violate its commitments to protect the rights of its children to appease public opinion or simply because only a very small number of children will be affected. The government can determine appropriate punishment for crimes, but the aim should be rehabilitation and eventual reintegration of the child offender as a constructive member of society.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which India ratified in 1992, encourages the use of alternatives to incarceration to ensure that children are dealt with in a manner appropriate to their well-being and proportionate both to their circumstance and the offense.
Instead of hasty measures that are unlikely to better protect women and children, the government should make a commitment to effective law enforcement and the more difficult and lengthy steps needed to reform the criminal justice system. This will need concerted political will to invest in and train police, forensic specialists, prosecutors, counselors, and medical specialists. And it means providing adequate resources for reformative institutions, protection services, and the courts to ensure they protect the rights of the victims, witnesses, and the accused – and do not add to the abuses already being committed.