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Juvenile Justice System In India

Should age or maturity level be the factor for determining a claim of juvenility?
The Juvenile Justice Act was created, amended and consolidated with a view to safeguard the rights and liberties of children in conflict with law along with catering to their basic needs and interests through proper legislative enactments, treatments, security as well as restoration and rehabilitation into their normal way of life.

The basic aim of the act is not to hamper the growth and progress of children and enable them to acclimatize back to their original life or restoring them back to their status quo. The lawmakers while creating such an act felt that children are innocent and their young minds can be easily manipulated and persuaded into committing crimes which may be of heinous nature.

They are often not mature enough to understand the consequences of their act and it is this relative immaturity that provides them with protection under law and prevents them from being subjected to the same trials and tribulations as those faced by an adult. Juvenile Justice Boards have been created in all states in India who have their own ways of dealing with delinquent behavior of Juveniles.

Before the enactment of Juvenile Justice Act of 1986, 2000 and 2015, the Children's Act of 1960 incorporated provisions for implementing a uniform policy aimed at protecting the rights and interests of the Juvenile in conflict with law. This act was very limited in scope and very preliminary in nature and was not at all effective in reforming the juveniles.

Hence with subsequent developments in the country, and with more and more involvement of Juveniles in crimes relating to heinous offences, the lawmakers were compelled to introduce more progressive and stricter laws with regard to Juvenile system in India and this led to the implementation of the JJ act of 1986, 2000 and 2015.

The act of 1986 was re- enacted mainly to institutionalize and make stronger the arrangements within the constitution of India and international commitments in this matter in their approach towards equitable treatment of adolescents and hence the act paved way for the Juvenile Justice Act of 2000.

The JJ act,2000 was in existence till it was amended by the parliament and JJ act 2015 came into force. However the definition of a child in both the acts is a person who has not completed 18 yrs. of age and also the definition of child in conflict with law¯. Child in conflict with law also means the same i.e. a child who is alleged to have committed an offence and has not completed 18 years of age on the date of commission of such offence.

There are several factors and reasons behind Juvenile Delinquency. These include:
  1. Parental control- both over indulgence as well as lenient control by parents over their children, can lead him to commit such crimes.
  2. Peer influences- increasing association with peer groups and fear of social rejection as well as the need to be accepted as a part of the group, compels these youngsters to try something new and gain worldwide experience of things.
  3. Economic background- children living in lower income households with lack of financial security and increased distress are more likely to commit crimes. In many such cases parents do encourage their children to commit petty thefts and robbery so as to sustain themselves and their families
  4. Along with the above factors, poor performance at school, past experiences, low self-esteem, mental disorders etc. also compel them to resort to committing crimes.

The terms Juvenile¯ and minor¯ are technically the same terms but can be distinguished in the context that minor cannot be used for immature persons or children in conflict with law. It only refers to youngsters and teens who are under the age of full legal obligation. Juvenile¯ is a better term to be used for youngsters deviating from the law.

In the JJ act, 2000, section 15 read with sec 16 categorically stipulated that a juvenile cannot be in custody for a period of more than 3 years and that custody cannot be a regular jail but has to be Juvenile Justice Home/ Children Home. The idea and the object is that the juvenile should not be in the company of any hard core adult criminals.

For determining a claim of juvenility under the JJ act, 2000, the law has provided preferences of evidence/documents which states that a juvenile has been accused while claiming that he was a juvenile at that the time of committing the offence. Rule 12(3) provides that the documents which can be used in preference should be a matriculation certificate (class X) and in absence thereof the school first attended and in absence thereof the birth certificate issued by the concerned municipality should be given in evidence. However, if a juvenile does not have any of these above documents even then the law provides a constitution of medical board to medically examine the concerned juvenile for ascertaining the relevant age of the juvenile at the time of commission of the offence.

However, there has been a significant change in the JJ act, 2015 which basically was amended after the horrific incidence in Nirbhaya rape case, which produced a spark in the country, where one of the accused who was just 6 months less from attaining majority, was released after just 3 years on the grounds of his minority, while he was the one who had caused the most barbaric and brutal sexual assault on the victim.

The first significant change was incorporating the category of offences as heinous offences whose punishment was 7 years or more. However, the most startling amendment was section 15 of the JJ act, 2015 where the concerned JJ board would conduct a preliminary assessment of a child where the concerned child is above the age of 16 yrs. In fact, the board shall conduct a preliminary assessment wrt the mental and physical capacity of such child to commit such offense, his ability to understand the consequences of such an offence along with the circumstances in which he allegedly committed the offence.

However, if after the preliminary assessment the board comes to the conclusion that the concerned child has attained the maturity level of an adult even though he may be above 16 years of age and below 18 years of age , the said child would be tried as an adult before a regular trial court. In all other cases the concerned board would pass normal necessary orders as done in juvenile cases where the juvenile is even less than 16 years of age.

However even under the new JJ act, 2015 there is a bar that under no circumstances a juvenile who is in conflict with law can be sentenced to death or for life imprisonment.
In a recent case before the Supreme Court, Tikam and others V. State of UP (2021), 13 prisoners were granted bail who had been illegally detained for about 14-22 years at Agra jail despite of clear orders being passed by the JJ board claiming their juvenility.

The prisoners were detained along with hard core adult criminals which violated the provisions of Juvenile Justice Act of 2000 and since the offence had been committed before the enactment of the Juvenile Justice act of 2015, the provisions of JJ act of 2000 would have only applied and according to that, the maximum punishment that could have been given to an accused could be upto 3 years only and no more than that. The petition also stated that the illegal detention of the juveniles was an infringement of article 21 of the constitution which safeguards the life and liberty of an individual.

Critical Analysis
Hence, if we critically try to analysis the act, it has evolved over time with subsequent enactments and judicial pronouncements, but children are still given a lot of privileges and the type of reformative punishment given to them is not at all effective in reducing the crime rates in the country.

Moreover, children even around the age of 14 now days, become mature enough to understand the nature and consequences of their act. Lack of parental control as well as excessive liberty granted to them, enables them to try and experience new things and this is how they gain sufficient knowledge about the world.

Their mental and physical capacity increases when they try to explore novel things and engage in risk seeking behavior. Hence, they cannot be merely dismissed on the grounds of their innocence by virtue of being a child. By taking into consideration and analyzing their maturity level, juveniles who are mature enough to understand the consequences of their act as an adult, must be subjected to the same trials and procedures established by law with respect to a hard-core adult criminal. No age restrictions should be there while treating a child as an adult and the only method of determining the punishment of the Juvenile must be whether he/she was physically and mentally mature enough to commit the act or not.

The provisions of the JJ act are also in conflict with Article 14 of the constitution which states that everyone is equal before the law and no one shall be above the law, and hence according to it, young offenders should also be treated in the same way as that of adults, provided they have sufficient maturity level as that of an adult.

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