After much debate, dissension and dialogue, the Indian Parliament has approved a new juvenile justice Bill, which now paves the way for the prosecution of juvenile criminals, aged between 16 and 18 years, to be tried as adults if they are accused of ‘heinous crimes’. This move comes on the heels of the recent release of the juvenile convict in the Delhi gang rape, who had been arrested when he was 17, and walked out of custody a 20-year-old.
The move has evoked mixed reactions and cleaved society in two. One half has justified this tougher law claiming juvenile crime is on the rise. However, while teens have been known to commit the gravest of crimes, statistics for juvenile crime have been static for a few years.
Right now, approving the Bill smacks of a knee-jerk reaction, of lawmakers buckling down to immense pressure. This is not to trivialize the heinous crime that was committed; one cannot even begin to understand the pain and grief that the victim’s family members will carry with them all their lives. No one but the families who live with that kind of darkness will know what it is to wake up every morning, knowing that your child’s rapist or killer is free. Their anger, and the sentiment that India has failed them and their daughters, is also justified.
Yet, our lawmakers have, through more than five decades, always swayed towards reformation or re-integration of juveniles. Teenagers are more vulnerable and impressionable than adults. We should up the quality of counselling, expertise and guidance in this field, so that juvenile offenders are at least put on the path of reform while they are detained.
Everybody has been shocked and repulsed by the brutality of the Delhi gang rape, but perhaps this Bill should have been given more time, for a more studied and carefully thought-out decision. Statistics and facts should have been taken into account, experts working in the field with children should have been brought into the debate, and then, one could have taken a more measured call.