MY OPINION – Should juveniles go scot-free?

While the nation rejoiced over speedy trials and exemplary punishment in the Nirbhaya and Shakti Mills cases, some managed to evade the reach of law because they were juveniles. The policy on juveniles is caught between rehabilitation and get-tough approach. It’s worthwhile to learn from the evolution of policy towards juvenile offenders in the United States instead of reinventing the wheel.

Over a hundred years ago, the US established the Juvenile Justice System to divert young offenders from destructive punishment of criminal codes and focus on rehabilitation to ensure their reintegration into society. Juveniles were not sent to prisons but to reformatories. These changes were followed by an alarming increase in crime, including many horrendous violent incidents involving juveniles. Reacting to public uproar, the US modified its emphasis from rehabilitation to punishment to ensure public safety and offender accountability. It was felt that juvenile laws were too soft on those juveniles well aware of the consequences of their actions.

The US has now moved to a pol icy which ensures a balance between the needs of the victim, offender as well as the society. Not only has it lowered the age of judicial waiver but also enacted mandatory minimum punishment for violent crime. It treats juveniles as adults in certain serious and violent crimes. We probably need to take cue from it.

In India, no offender less than 18 years can be sent to jail because, howsoever ghastly the crime, it’s presumed he’s unaware of the consequences of his actions. But India lowered the age of voting to 18 years and driving to 16 years on the grounds that a person this age is mature enough to elect his representatives as well as drive safely! In India too, there is substantial decline in public endorsement of reform-and-rehabilitation policy for violent juvenile criminals and increase in support for a get-tough solution.

It’s unlikely that lawmakers will abandon the humanistic policy towards juveniles. But it’s time we consider segregating the incorrigible minority from treatable majority among juveniles and subject them to tougher punishments.

Praveen Sood

Addl Director General of Police.

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