There is no doubt that the provisions of the new juvenile justice Act—especially that of lowering the minimum age of being liable for trial as an adult, from 18 years to 16 years—pose unique challenges and questions. Does it take us closer to retributive justice than reformative? Will it encourage recidivism (return to crime by perpetrators) among the juveniles? While the key provision has polarised lawmakers, it also was a necessary move given the growing number of crimes by juveniles—this went up from 35,465 in 2012 to 42,566 in 2014, although the proportion of offences committed by juveniles has been steady, at just over 1% of all reported crime, in the past three years.
The new law doesn’t provide for summary trial of all juvenile
offenders as adults. As the minister for women and child development, Maneka Gandhi, pointed out in Parliament, whether an offender between 16-18 years of age will be tried as an adult (crime committed in an adult frame of mind) or as a juvenile (crime committed in a child-like frame of mind) will be decided by experts and psychologists on district-level Juvenile Justice Board. This will help weed out cases where there is scope for reform. Given recidivism among juveniles has been decreasing over the past four years while it has more or less remained stable or increased slightly for adults, there is definitely something to be said for trying underage offenders as juveniles rather than adults. Thus, the new law will need to strike a balance between punitive and reformative goals. With the vetting provision,an appropriate mechanism seems to be in place, but the provision that the board has to give its opinion within 3 months needs to be revisited. Given the offender can only give a statement after the charge-sheet is filed—which usually takes more than 3 months—the board, as per the existing provisions, will have to give its pronouncement without even speaking to the offender.