Offender vs offence
GS PAPER 2: Government policies and interventions
Prelims Exam: About Juvenile Justice Act
Mains Exam: Significance of Juvenile Justice Act
The Supreme Court (SC) made an observation in its judgment of November 16 in the infamous Kathua rape-murder case: the rising rate of juvenile delinquency in India is a matter of concern and requires immediate attention.
Background of Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act
- The provisions of the Constitution confer powers and impose duties, under clause (3) of article 15, clauses (e) and (f) of article 39, article 45 and article 47, on the State to ensure that all the needs of children are met and that their basic human rights are fully protected.
- The Government of India has acceded on the 11th December, 1992 to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the General Assembly of United Nations, which has prescribed a set of standards to be adhered to by all State parties in securing the best interest of the child.
JJ Act 2015 enacted as per the standards of:
- The Convention on the Rights of the Child,
- The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice, 1985 (the Beijing Rules),
- The United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty (1990),
- The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (1993), and other related international instruments.
Comparison Between Juvenile Justice Act (2000 & 2015)
- The manner in which brutal and heinous crimes have been committed over a period of time by the juveniles and still continue to be committed, makes us wonder whether the [Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children)] Act, 2015 has subserved its object.
- The leniency with which the juveniles are dealt with in the name of goal of reformation is making them more and more emboldened in indulging in such heinous crimes.
- It is for the government to consider whether its enactment of 2015 has proved to be effective or something still needs to be done in the matter before it is too late in the day.”
- A “child in conflict with law” or juvenile offender could become so hardened say, on account of exposure to dehumanising poverty and violence that he/she is beyond reform. Such hardening could, of course, occur in children for reasons other than socio-economic circumstances.
- Sending children, as a matter of course, to adult prisons for heinous crimes (which attract imprisonment of seven years or more) would rule out reformation.
- Rather, the working of our criminal justice system would ensure that such a person would come out (if the person comes out alive) equipped to commit more crimes.
- Police reforms have yet to take place, notwithstanding the directions of the SC issued in this regard way back in 2006 (Prakash Singh).
- Custodial violence, abuse and torture are rampant.
- The majority of the jail population in India still consists of undertrials, waiting for years for their trial to commence.
Juvenile law stand regarding Punishment Scenario
- The law, contained in successive Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Acts (JJ Acts), places a blanket ban on the power of the criminal court to try and punish a person below the specified age for committing any offence.
- Should a person, who has sufficient maturity of understanding to judge the nature and consequences of his/her action, get blanket immunity from the criminal process without the fear of being prosecuted, tried and punished, merely because that person is below the specified age?
- Under the existing law, such a person, at best, could be subjected to a child-friendly enquiry by a Juvenile Justice Board (JJ Board) and reformation for a maximum period of three years in a correctional home.
Constitutional Validity of Offence
- The parents of the December 2012 Delhi gangrape and murder victim had challenged before the Supreme Court the constitutional validity of such blanket ban in the JJ Act of 2000, and sought that the juvenile involved should at least be tried by the competent criminal court for the offences against their daughter (Badrinath, 2014).
- The Constitution differentiates the functions of the executive, legislature and judiciary. It falls within the domain of judicial function to try and punish a person committing penal offences with judicial discretion regarding the award of sentence keeping in view, amongst other factors, the nature and gravity of the offence.
- It is well settled that the assessment of whether or not an offender has attained sufficient maturity of understanding to judge the nature and consequences of his/her conduct is to be done by the court with the help of experts, and is a judicial function as exemplified by Section 83 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and Order XXXII of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908.
- There are precedents in which the SC has held that Parliament cannot make law to oust the judicial function of courts or even judicial discretion in a matter falling within the judicial function of courts.
- Thus, the JJ Act 2000 — to the extent it deprived the criminal court of the power to try and to punish a person below the age of 18 years for committing an offence, when such a person could be assessed to have attained sufficient maturity to judge the nature and consequences of his/her conduct — encroached upon the judicial domain and was, therefore, unconstitutional.
- The current JJ Act, 2015, suffers from the same defect, except that the age of criminal responsibility for heinous offences has been reduced to 16 years.
Supreme Court Views
- The SC inter-alia took the view in Badrinath that nothing as sweeping and as drastic had been introduced by the JJ Act, 2000 that “sets at naught all the essential features of the criminal justice system and introduces a scheme which is abhorrent to our constitutional values”.
- Unfortunately, the SC lost an opportunity to rationalise the juvenile justice law which would have simply required a finding that instead of the conferral of blanket immunity from criminal process upon a juvenile offender, there should be a case-by-case assessment by a competent court (and not the JJ Board) as to whether or not such juvenile had attained sufficient maturity of understanding to judge the nature and consequences of his/her action.
- It has been overlooked that the fundamental premise of juvenile justice law is that a juvenile offender who lacks such maturity should not be sent to a criminal court to be tried for the commission of an offence, and instead, should be sent to a correctional home for reform and rehabilitation.
- Therefore, should the offender have such maturity, he/she must be prosecuted before the criminal court, tried and, if found guilty, punished.
- The age of the juvenile offender alone cannot, therefore, justify a blanket immunity from the criminal process rather, the question of such immunity must be assessed on a case-by-case basis depending on the maturity of such offender.
- This does not necessarily mean that a “child in conflict with law” who possesses sufficient maturity would be tried with adults.
If the government appreciates the above observation of the SC and reconsiders the existing juvenile justice law, it should, amend such law along the lines indicated above. Such an amendment would go a long way in providing the requisite balance between the rationales underlying the juvenile justice system and the criminal justice system and realising the objectives professed by both.