A 12-year-old girl was allegedly gang-raped on Sunday by five friends she was playing with near her house on the outskirts of Guwahati in Assam. The accused have been caught and claim they are minors, between 15 and 16 years of age. They will now be dealt with the current Juvenile Justice (JJ) Act, the inadequacy of which was recently exposed by the verdicts in the Delhi gang rape case. While the other accused were awarded death sentence, one youngster who played the most brutal role in the gruesome crime was merely sent to a remand home for three years — the maximum punishment under the law — simply because he was a few month short of the age of 18.
Despite the unprecedented street protests following the Nirbhaya rape, there has been little substantive debate on the adequacy of the JJ Act to deal with heinous crimes. The Act was passed in 2000 to meet India’s obligations as a signatory of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, the protection of juveniles has to be balanced with the interest of protecting vulnerable members of society from heinous crimes committed by persons under 18. India’s crime figures show a massive spurt in instances of rape by juveniles. This makes amendment of the JJ Act imperative.
Confronted with a similar situation the US and the UK — which are signatories to the UN Convention — have amended their laws. In India, the current system of juvenile justice administration serves neither the purpose of rehabilitation nor deterrence against future crime. Against 1.7 million juvenile accused India has only 815 poorly-run remand homes with a capacity of 35,000. In view of the significant increase in rapes committed by juveniles since the passage of the JJ Act, it has become necessary to create a legal deterrent to protect women and girls. India must amend the act to bring down the age bar for juveniles to 16 and transfer heinous crimes such as murder and rape committed by them to the adult criminal system.