Before the amendments to the Juvenile Justice Act of 2000 were passed in the end of 2015, India saw pitched battles over whether the law should be amended to treat juveniles, between the age of 16 to 18, who had committed “heinous” offences as adult offenders. The Ryan International School murder may be the first high-profile case since the law was amended.
The Juvenile Justice Board made this decision recently on the basis of social and psychological profiles of the accused. This means that the accused, if convicted, will serve out his term at a correctional home till he is 21 before being moved to an adult prison. The amended Act still does not permit such offenders to be given a life term or a death sentence.
While it may be fair to say that a 16-year-old knows right from wrong, experts have long pointed out that the brain is not fully formed till one hits their early 20s. This suggests that young offenders can be reformed in ways that adults cannot. For that, however, reformation—not retribution—needs to be the central doctrine of our justice system. The Ryan International murder investigation was originally botched. A bus conductor at the school was accused of the crime before being cleared. But by then, he had been tried and convicted by the media and public opinion. His is only the most recent instance of a life ruined by a botched investigation.
A study conducted by interviewing 60 former Supreme Court judges showed they believed investigations were regularly manipulated and torture employed by investigating agencies. This should make us balk at retributive justice, as it could easily be deployed against the innocent. Most judges interviewed, however, did not let this affect their view of the death penalty.
Is this the justice system under which we should be placing young offenders? The Juvenile Justice Act is meant to look at juvenile offenders as capable of change. Trying juveniles as adults—even if they are guilty of the crime—only says that we, as a society, have given up on them without even trying.