The Juvenile Justice Act 2015: A major step to deal with young criminals

On December 31 last year, President Pranab Mukherjee gave his assent to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Amendment Act 2015. It came into effect on January 15, 2016 and endeavors to deal with children who commit crimes as well as safeguard those in need of protection.

Who is a juvenile delinquent?

‘Juvenile delinquents’ or ‘children in conflict with the law’ refers to any person below the age of 18 years who has come in contact with the justice system as a result of committing a crime or being suspected of committing a crime. However, the Indian Penal Code (IPC) specifies that a child cannot be charged with any crime until he has attained seven years of age.

What led to amendment of the existing act?

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 was passed in compliance with the mandates of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). This act considers individuals below the age of 18 as children.

However, many people voiced their views against this provision when one of the main accused in the 2012 Delhi gang rape (who was then a few months away from turning 18 years of age) was tried in a juvenile court. He was later set free after a mere three-year sentence in a reform home. The ensuing public outrage across India prompted lawmakers to review rising cases of teenage crimes. People and parliamentarians alike realised the urgency to formulate a law to tackle heinous crimes committed by juveniles in the age group of 16-18 years.

Highlights of the Juvenile Justice Act 2015:

1. As per the provisions of the amended act, juveniles in the age group of 16-18 years will be tried as adults under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for heinous offences like rape, murder, etc. that include a prison sentence of seven years or more.

2. One of the major amendments made was the removal of Clause 7 which stipulated that a person who commits a lesser i.e. a serious crime between the ages of 16-18 years should be tried as an adult only if he is apprehended after the age of 21 years.

3. The bill provides for the establishment of Juvenile Justice Boards (JJB) and Child Welfare Committees (CWC) in each district. These bodies will conduct a preliminary inquiry to assess the mental state of the juvenile offender. Based on this assessment, JJBs will decide whether the offender is to be sent for rehabilitation or be tried as an adult.

4. The CWC will determine institutional care for children in need of care and protection.

5. The act also lays down eligibility of adoptive parents and the adoption procedures for orphaned, abandoned or surrendered children. A central adoption resource authority (CARA) will frame the rules for adoption, which will be implemented by state and district-level agencies.

6. Penalties for cruelty against children, like offering narcotic substances to a child, and abduction or selling of children have been detailed in the act.

7. It also incorporates new offences, including illegal adoption, corporal punishment in childcare institutions, use of children by militant groups, and offences against disabled children.

8. The act also stipulates the following measures:

  • Increasing the reconsideration period for surrender of children by parents or guardians.
  • Enhancing the period for inter-country adoption in case the child is not given for domestic adoption.
  • Assigning the role of designated authority to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights to monitor implementation of the Act.
  • Making the Centre and state governments responsible for spreading awareness on the provisions of the Act.

Juvenile Justice Boards:

1. One or more than one JJBs are to be constituted for each district.

2. Composition:

  • The board would consist of one Judicial Magistrate
  • Two social workers would also be members, at least one of whom should be a woman.

3. The role of JJBs will be to:

  • Ensure legal aid to juveniles.
  • Determine the mental state of a juvenile offender and decide if he/she needs to be tried as an adult.
  • Regularly inspect adult jails to check whether children are lodged in such jails.

Child Welfare Committees:

1. As per the Act, state governments have to constitute Child Welfare Committees in every district.

2. Composition: The CWC should comprise a chairperson and four members. At least one person in the committee should be a woman.

3. The role of CWCs will be to:

  • Inquire juvenile offender’s cases.
  • Provide residence to offenders when the trial is ongoing.
  • Interview and understand problems of such children.

Reasons for criticism of the new Act:

1.India is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which require all signatories to treat persons under the age of 18 as children. However, the new act is in contravention of this rule of the UNCRC.

2. Violation of fundamental rights:

  • Article 14 of the Indian Constitution demands equal treatment for every person before the law. However, the new act permits different treatment for two sets of juvenile delinquents for the same offence on the difference of their date of their apprehension.
  • Article 21 ensures protection of rights and personal liberty. Any law in India should be just and fair for every citizen. Thus, the provision for different treatment for two different juvenile delinquents on the difference of the date of their apprehension contradicts this right.
  • Article 20(1) stipulates that no person should be subjected to a penalty greater than that which might have been inflicted under the law in force at the time of the commission of the offence. But as per the new act, if a juvenile has committed a crime between the age of 16-18 and is apprehended at a later date, he/she may face a higher penalty than what would be applicable to him if he/she had been apprehended earlier at the time of commission of the offence.

3. The parliamentary standing committee (PSC) chaired by Dr. Satyanarayan Jatiya has argued the following:

  • The statistical data provided by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) was one of the reasons for enactment of the amended law. As per the NCRB, number of heinous crimes committed by juvenile offenders in the age of 16-18 years is doubling up. However, the PSC contended that since this data has been compiled based on the number of FIRs filed and not actual convictions, it is misleading.
  • The committee also raised questions of the fair and uniform implementation of this act throughout India.

4. Many child rights activists have asserted that with the Act’s implementation, the government has veered away from goals of reformation and rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents. Further, they stated that the blame for increasing rate of crimes committed by children cannot be laid on them alone, but also on the society and the state.

We would also like to hear your opinions about this Act. You can share your views in the comment box below.