No juvenile reaction
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In the aftermath of the death of the Delhi gangrape victim, some of the public anger is being channelled into a demand that one of the accused, a minor, be charged and tried as an adult. The Uttar Pradesh government, for one, has put forward a proposal that in the case of rape, only those under the age of 16 be treated as juveniles. It may seem repugnant to many that one of the accused, if proven guilty, could come away with relatively lighter punishment — a maximum of three years in a reform facility — for committing such a terrible crime. But the call to create an exception, coming from sources as diverse as the young woman's father and Woman and Child Development Minister Krishna Tirath, is a knee-jerk, if understandable, response.
In India, crimes committed by those under the age of 18 fall under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, 2000. It lays down a non-penal, protective juvenile justice system that is applicable across the country, with the exception of Jammu and Kashmir, which means that juveniles cannot be treated or sentenced in the same manner as adults and cases involving them are, instead, tried by a juvenile justice board consisting of a magistrate and two social workers. The case is decided by a majority. Unlike in other countries — for instance, in the UK and in several states in the US — which provide for juveniles to be tried as adults depending on the severity of the offence, no such exceptions exist under Indian law. The Supreme Court has held that the juvenile justice act is the only legislation applicable to serious crimes committed by those under 18, and juveniles are exempt even from special laws such as POTA.
It could be argued that there is merit in the idea that the Indian Penal Code should apply to juveniles in the case of specific and heinous crimes such as rape and murder. But the decision to amend the law must come only after rigorous and considered debate. It cannot be a reaction to a fraught moment. Meanwhile, the boy who allegedly committed this crime must be charged within the parameters of law as it stands today.
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