Terra Nullius | No exceptions please

Reforming the juvenile justice system to accept the current realities and for dealing with heinous crimes is the way ahead.

The entire country seems outraged that the teenage criminal in the December 16th Delhi rape case got a three-year sentence in a reformation home. Many of those aghast are demanding a stronger punishment—preferably a death sentence—for the rapist. At one level, this anger is understandable. But there is a huge problem with the case of this particular juvenile. The problem does not lie so much with today’s ruling, as it does with the system of juvenile justice in the country. According to the Juvenile Justice Act, 2000, any person below the age of 18 is considered a child and is entitled to protection as a child. Further, earlier this year, the National Policy for Children declared all those below the age of 18 as children.

The Juvenile Justice Act stipulates that no juvenile can ever be sentenced to life imprisonment and the maximum ‘punishment’ that can be handed out is being sent to a reformation home for three years. We can then accept that this particular minor rapist has been handed out the severest sentence under the present legal system. Demanding for an exception to the law for this one particular case is partiality towards all other such cases that never garnered media attention, where similar sentences have been handed out to minors.

Any civilised society is recognised by its fairness and impartiality in applying its laws and policies. The sentence handed out to this ‘child’ rapist does precisely that. We cannot then, as a civilised society, call for exceptional rulings or sentences for any one particular case– however brutal and barbaric may be the nature of the crime. If we do so, then we are letting down the entire process of justice, making space for a few exceptions and allowing loopholes to percolate the system. What we need to demand instead is that the entire system of juvenile justice be reformed immediately, keeping in mind the realities of modern India and accepting the pace at which Indian young adults are growing. In 10 years (2001-2011), juvenile crimes have escalated in India by 65 percent. The NCRB data (from 2011) shows that 64 percent of all juvenile criminals fall under the age group of 16-18 years. Clearly, India needs to amend its laws to move with the reality of its citizens. The current law refuses to acknowledge that a 16 year old is capable of understanding his or her crime, its brutal and adult nature and its consequences.

We need to demand the legal space for exceptional cases such as this one, so that every 17 year old rapist or murderer is culpable and handed out terse punishments based on the nature of the crime. One way to do so is by incorporating the term ‘adolescent’ and defining it as those belonging to the age group of 16 to 18 years. This would not automatically mean handing out harsher sentences for juvenile offenders or abandoning those in genuine need of care and protection. It would mean recognising that this segment of the population is neither child nor is it at par with adults and should therefore be treated legally on a case-by-case basis. Screaming for a different sentence for one particular case is going to achieve nothing. We need to change the system.

Also read my piece in Pragati- The Indian National Interest Review on the various ages for defining a child in the Indian legal system.