BENGALURU: The Juvenile Justice law in the country has been heavily debated in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya rape case leading to even a change in the law as per which children between the ages of 16 – 18 can now be tried as adults for heinous crimes. The public outcries at the release of the juvenile convicted in the Nirbhaya rape case sent ripples across the country, forcing parliamentarians to debate and pass the amendments to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act in the 2015 winter session. While several child rights groups and civil society organisations as well as several members of parliament spoke on the need for this amendment to be thoroughly discussed, the Bill was unanimously passed - largely to appease public sentiment. What most of the public demanding for the change in the law was unaware of was that the new amendment could not have challenged the release of the juvenile convicted in the Nirbhaya case, since a change in law does not apply in retrospect.

Instead of merely changing laws to address increased rates of juvenile crimes, what is required is to understand that they are a manifestation of larger social problems. A deeper more nuanced understanding of the social aspects of juvenile crime would be more effective in addressing the problem in a holistic manner rather than just symptomatically. ‘The JJ law was never implemented in its entirety for which children have paid the price. The law was changed with a waiver provision having been introduced. The changes in the law require a creation and expansion of infrastructure and human personnel. Despite neither of these being in place, the law is being implemented... due to which children continue to suffer’ says Enakshi Ganguly, Co – Director, HAQ Centre for Child Rights. Another factor to take into account is the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders. The present system is essentially retributive rather than rehabilitative in nature. When the juvenile convicted in the Nirbhaya case was released on completing the age of 18, the public discourse on the issue was limited to changing the law, but failed to raise important questions regarding the failure of the system in rehabilitating and reforming the accused.

There are several instances of juveniles turning into repeated offenders which points to the failure of the existing system to rehabilitate and reform children in conflict with law. A Project Officer at a Juvenile home in Bangalore on the condition of anonymity explained ‘we try to do as much as possible, but in all honesty its only 5% of these children whose life changes, while the remaining 95% return to the same life of committing crimes or end up coming back to the home.’

Lack of and poor infrastructural support, human resource and counselling support are some factors among many due to which the lives of very few children who enter juvenile homes changes. Often when they leave the remand home, these children do not have the skills to support themselves and struggle to find a respectable place in society; and the stigma associated with being a juvenile offender makes their integration into the mainstream even harder.

As per the National Bureau of Crime Records (NBCR), of all the crimes committed in the country, 2.5 percent of them were by juveniles in 2015. While the rate of juvenile crime has dropped from 2014, when it was 2.7 %, over the years, there has been a gradual increase in the number of crimes committed by juveniles – 2.1 in 2011, 2.3 in 2012 and 2.6 in 2013.

If one were to thoroughly look through the data of crimes committed by juveniles in 2015 the numbers are appalling and call for a better understanding of why children are committing crimes.

39 percent of India’s population is children and a total of 41,385 of cognisable crimes under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Special and Local Laws (SLL) were committed by juveniles. 2582 juveniles were apprehended for murder, attempted murder, homicide and culpable homicide in 2015.

1919 were apprehended on the charges of rape, gang – rape and attempt to rape; 1598 were apprehended for assault on women with the intent to outrage modesty and 494 were apprehended under the Protection of Children against Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act; 7936 for burglary and theft and 1605 for rash driving and road rage.

These numbers raise several questions regarding why certain crimes by children are being committed in such large numbers and if one were to consider the number of crimes which go unreported these numbers would a lot more. As Enakshi points out ‘there is a need to look at the several social, economic and cultural factors at play in the case of juvenile crimes and that instead of penalisation, greater emphasis needs to be on rehabilitation and restoration of these children.’

The number of children apprehended for murder, rape, sexual offences and assaults points to the need for a better understanding of the causes and motivation behind them committing these crimes and is proof in itself that the present manner in which juvenile justice is being addressed in the country is failing. Simply changing the law to try children between 16 – 18 years as adults for heinous crimes is not going to resolve the matter. A detailed study and understanding of why the number and nature of crimes within this age category have increased over the years would provide for a better assessment of the situation and would also help in creating laws and policies which are more effective in curbing juvenile crimes and in rehabilitating them.

There is a need for legislations and laws to be framed and implemented in a manner which take into account the several social factors which affect and influence every individual, including children, in the choices that they make. Crimes committed by children are a manifestation of deeper social problems that need to be addressed as opposed to the present approach which simply views the child as a problem.