Activists have criticised India’s juvenile laws for being too lenient. The maximum punishment under the law, even for offenses such as rape and murder, is three years’ confinement in a reformatory. In comparison, the maximum punishment for minors in the U.K. and the U.S. is life imprisonment…
The new Lieutenant Governor of Delhi has, according to local media reports, called for reforms to India’s juvenile justice laws to introduce tougher punishments for crimes such as rape and murder. Najeeb Jung’s comments came after a teenager involved in the gang-rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in Delhilast year was sentenced to three years in a reformatory, the maximum punishment under India’s Juvenile Justice Act. Mr. Jung, who oversees Delhi’s police, city planning, development and education, was quoted by the Press Trust of India as saying that he was not happy with the sentence in the trial of the teenager who was 17 years old when he took part in the gang-rape of the female student, who died from her injuries.
“The age of the juvenile should be lowered. These days, young people grow up much faster,” PTI quoted Mr. Jung as saying. Mr. Jung couldn’t be reached for comment. In India, the criminal age of majority – the age at which a person can be tried as an adult – is 18. But the brutality of the rape in December, just months before the teenager involved turned 18, led to calls for the age limit for a juvenile to be lowered.
The Supreme Court has turned down eight petitions to this effect in recent months and is considering an application from Subramanian Swamy, a politician, who asked judges to amend the law so that mental and intellectual capability, rather than age, determines whether someone should be tried as an adult.
“People are saying the age limit should be brought down to 16. Even if the age of a juvenile is lowered to 14, there would be nothing wrong with that. There is need to review it,” Mr. Jung reportedly said. A committee formed by the Government to recommend ways to improve laws to protect women advised against changing the upper age limit for juveniles in India.
Gopal Subramanium, one of the members of that committee, told India Real Time that juveniles may not always be completely responsible for their decisions. “If you were to follow the kind of schooling which you have in the Netherlands or in some of the Scandinavian democracies, then you could bring the age limit down to 16 or 14, because they are taught responsibility from a young age,” Mr. Subramanium said.
The Supreme Court in India has turned down eight petitions in recent months and is considering an application from Subramanian Swamy, a politician, who asked judges to amend the law so that mental and intellectual capability, rather than age, determines whether someone should be tried as an adult.
He added that the adult age in India has a “direct link to the Indian education system and with the social environment.”
The first special legislation for juveniles in India was enacted in 1850 with the Apprentice Act, requiring children aged 10 to 18 convicted in court to be given vocational training as part of their rehabilitation. The law relating to young people went through a number of changes until the first Juvenile Justice Act, 1986, defined juveniles as under 16 for boys and under 18 for girls. This act was criticized by human rights activists because it put children who had committed crime in reformatories alongside those who were neglected and in need of care from the State.
In 2000, India raised its definition of a male juvenile to 18 from 16 under the Juvenile Justice Act. Doing so was part of the nation’s obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which it signed in 1992.
Other signatories, including the U.S. and the U.K., also fixed the upper age for minors at 18. But, unlike India, criminal law in both countries provides room for minors to be tried as adults. In the U.S., prosecutors can appeal to court requesting the case of a minor be moved from a juvenile court to an adult one, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice. Judges in a juvenile court also have the power to rule that a minor be tried as an adult. In cases where the offense is grave, such as rape or murder, criminal courts — where adults are tried — can independently call for jurisdiction over the matter.
In the U.K., those charged with crimes while aged between 10 and 17 are tried in juvenile courts. Over 18s are treated as adults, but until they are 25 they serve their sentences in facilities for 18-25 year olds, rather than full adult prisons.
In cases where a crime is too serious to be dealt with in the juvenile justice system, or because the child is accused alongside adult co-defendants, the trial can be transferred to adult courts in the U.K.
Activists have also criticised India’s juvenile laws for being too lenient. The maximum punishment under the law, even for offenses such as rape and murder, is three years’ confinement in a reformatory. In comparison, the maximum punishment for minors in the U.K. and the U.S. is life imprisonment. Until 2005, minors could also be sentenced to death in the U.S.
According to Penal Reform International, a London – based non – governmental organization seeking changes to the prison system worldwide, research from the U.S.has suggested that transferring children to adult courts results in high rates of pretrial detention, harsher sentences, placement of children in adult facilities and overall increased rates of reoffending. In the Philippines, offenders up to the age of 21 are given more lenient custodial sentences. In Germany, those over 18 but under 21 can be transferred from adult to youth courts. In India, offenders can remain in youth reformatories after they have reached adulthood.
At the other end of the scale, the minimum age of criminal responsibility in India, the age at which children may be held criminally responsible for alleged crimes, is seven. This is one of the youngest worldwide. According to PRI’s 2013 report on justice for children, Jordan, Lebanon, and Yemen also set criminal responsibility at seven. In Pakistan, the minimum age is 12. The Indian Penal Code allows room for children up to 12 years old to be considered incapable of forming the intent to commit a crime. Those younger than this must still be held responsible for their actions, but in a non-punitive, welfare and education oriented manner, according to a Unicef report in 2005.
That report said South Asia has the lowest regional average minimum age of criminal responsibility in the world, at seven years old. In the Americas and the Caribbean, the average age for children to be held criminally responsible for their actions is 11, while in Western Europe it is 13 and in the Middle East and Northern Africa it is nine.
Unicef has called for the minimum age to be 13 worldwide. It says the same age must apply regardless of the seriousness of the offense.