Two other adult convicts – one in each of the cases – have already been sentenced to life imprisonment. But there are two more accused, one in each case, who have been spared these harsh punishments and are being tried in a juvenile court, because they are below the age of 18.
Just last week, the Supreme Court rejected a petition by the parents of the deceased Delhi gang rape victim of December 16, 2012, and refused to lower to 16 the age at which children should stop being considered juveniles. The petitioners wanted juveniles to be tried in regular criminal courts in cases if they had committed grave offences. But the bench, headed by chief justice P Sathasivam, stated that “if the legislature has adopted the age of 18 as the dividing line between juveniles and adults and such a decision is constitutionally permissible, the enquiry by the courts must come to an end”.
Had the Court ruled in favour of lowering the age of juveniles by two years, it could have affected the fate of the two underage accused in the Shakti Mills cases. In fact, since the outcry against the Delhi gang rape, many people have demanded for juveniles who commit brutal and heinous acts to be tried as adults.
But to the relief of most activists, the Supreme Court has ensured that the cut-off age for juveniles will remain 18.
“Juveniles are defined as children below 18 years for a reason, and they cannot be treated as adults merely based on the intensity of the crime,” said Chayanika Shah, a feminist activist and member of the non-profit Forum Against Oppression of Women.
Shah believes society ought to take some responsibility for the crimes of children. “When such crimes are committed by young people, they certainly need to be punished, but with the aim of reform,” she said. “And society has to take partial onus for that.”
If an underage accused is convicted under the Juvenile Justice Act, the maximum sentence awarded is three years of confinement in a rehabilitation home. But for those in favour of lowering the age at which children are considered ‘juveniles’ – typically the friends and family members of victims – this is too light for a punishment in cases of rape or gang rape.
“These days, by the age of 16, boys are very mature physically and mentally, and in the Shakti Mills cases, they knew the consequences of their actions,” said Ujjwal Nikam, the public prosecutor in both cases who personally supports reducing the age at which children stop being considered juveniles. “They should not get the benefit of the Juvenile Justice Act.”
Many other lawyers and activists, however, believe this is just an emotional reaction, and would be unfortunate for young people in need of reform. “Harsher punishments are a negative approach to criminal law and do not help bring down crime rates,” said lawyer Veena Gowda. “Only consistent and speedy delivery of justice can make a difference.”
Still, reforming juvenile convicts is only possible in good rehabilitation homes. “But these homes are in a terrible condition,” said Flavia Agnes, a feminist lawyer and activist. The Supreme Court’s decision about the age of juveniles is correct, she says, but in most rehabilitation homes, juveniles are just left for three years without any attempts at reforming them. “We need to focus on improving these homes rather that giving worse punishments to juveniles,” she said.
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