Make laws on juvenile offenders tougher

,TNN | Mar 21, 2014, 06.40 AM IST

An age gap of a couple of years among offenders can lead to a vast gap in punishment as law in India treats juvenile delinquents as minors who can be punished with not more than a three-year sentence even for serious crimes such as rape, gang rape and murder.

Experts said the Shakti Mill gangrape cases, where two juvenile accused are yet to be tried, are yet another reminder of the urgency to have a relook at laws that govern juveniles older than 16 years.

The trial of the juvenile accused in the Shakti Mills cases is expected to start on April 1 before the Dongri Juvenile Justice Board.

In the case of the photojournalist's gangrape, the first accused to be caught the day after the incident was a minor. Another juvenile is an accused in the case of the telephone operator's gangrape.

Juveniles associated with grave crimes such as rape had increase in number, said cops. Data by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reveals a 143% jump in rapes by minors in a decade from 2002 to 2012.

The debate on whether the law should distinguish between adults and juveniles in cases of heinous crimes gained momentum after one of the accused in the rape of Nirbhaya in Delhi in December 2012 was revealed to be 17.

Last July, the Supreme Court rejected a plea to reduce the cut-off age of juveniles to 16 from 18, saying interference in the Juvenile Justice Act was unnecessary.

But after hearing a fresh plea by Nirbhaya's parents, the court reserved its verdict this January. They sought fresh trial of the juvenile accused by a regular criminal court, saying since he was just months short of adulthood, he had had the maturity to understand the heinousness of the crime.

The plea said the trial court should be allowed to determine maturity levels of offenders aged between 16 and 18 when grave crimes are committed. The court should also be allowed to decide whether a regular criminal court can try them and give punishment more severe than the three-year reformative sentence allowed now.

Many lawyers say rising awareness and maturity levels among teens have led to crimes like rape and murders where perpetrators have full knowledge of their actions. These acts call for harsher punishments, they argue. Others caution that the demand to lower the juvenile age would defeat the very purpose of "reformatory principles" society has adopted.

Advocate Swapnil Kothari said, "The data is alarming and demonstrates the urgency required to amend the law to reduce the age of juveniles to 16."