The Narendra Modi government’s decision to amend the Juvenile Justice Act to deal strongly with those who commit heinous acts like rape and murder has a lot to commend itself. The proposed amendment in the law will allow the Juvenile Justice Board hearing such cases to decide whether an accused who is above 16 should be tried by a regular court or by the Board itself. The amendment might have been necessitated by the large-scale public outrage over the mild punishment given to a juvenile accused in the December 2012 gang-rape case in Delhi. Had the incident happened a few days later, he would have turned 18 and would have been tried in a regular court.
Child rights and human rights activists have been opposing the demand for amendment in the Juvenile Justice Act on the ground that the law should not be amended to deal with a particular case. They forget that there has been a growing number of criminal cases in which juveniles between the ages of 16 and 18 are involved. By arguing for such boys and girls, they are undermining the very purpose of the law. There is scientific evidence that juveniles now reach maturity earlier than was the case a few decades ago. There is considerable merit in the argument when someone says that if a person can commit rape, he can also be punished for rape.
Even in many Western countries juveniles accused of rape and murder are not shown any leniency if they have crossed the age of 16. What matters is the level of maturity of the person concerned. It is good that the government has not merely reduced the upper age limit for juveniles. By leaving the decision to the Juvenile Justice Board, which will go into a whole gamut of issues like the person’s maturity level and whether the crime was premeditated or not, the government has tried to strike a balance. By ensuring such persons will not be given death penalty or life sentence, the government has also conceded the point that they need to be treated differently.