How Should India Try its Juvenile Criminals?


The Indian Cabinet recently suggested a far reaching change for juvenile law. According to the new bill, called the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act of 2014, juvenile boards will have the power to decide if 16 to 18 year olds in rape and murder cases should be tried as children or as adults.

What is the purpose of the law? Has it been put in place to punish or to reform criminals? Proposed changes in the juvenile justice system in India have ignited a debate on this issue.

According to existing laws, any person under the age of 18 is considered a minor and is tried under juvenile law. His or her case is handled by the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB). The maximum sentence stipulated for an adolescent criminal is three years — no matter how brutal or heinous the crime. The rationale behind this is to allow a young criminal the chance to reform as an adult.

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However, the laws may soon be changed. The issue of how juveniles ought to be punished has come to the fore due to the infamous gang rape and brutal murder of a young woman in December 2013 in Delhi. One of the six criminals of in this case was a young boy, who was six months below the age of 18 (he is unnamed as of yet as Indian law does not allow for the naming of juvenile criminals). According to media reports, the boy was the most brutal of the involved perpetrators. However, under current laws, he would still be released in three years from the reform home he has been sent to.

However, many Indians are unhappy with this and want the boy to receive the same sentence as the adult criminals in the case. Among the proponents of this change are the parents of the victim of the Delhi crime. “We want the death sentence for the juvenile also. He is also involved in brutalizing my daughter and there is no need to treat him with kid gloves. If we really want to stop violence against women such criminals should be hanged no matter whether he is major or minor,” said Badri Prasad, the father of the victim in an interview with The Diplomat last year.

However, both a special committee appointed by the Indian government and the Supreme Court have recommended that the juvenile law be kept the way it is. Nonetheless, the demand for a change in how juveniles are tried shows no signs of abating. Every time more criminal acts committed by juveniles are reported, demands for a change in the law increase.

Recent data suggests a rising trend of crimes committed by minors. According to reports, “crimes committed by juveniles increased by 13 percent between 2012 and 2013 going from 27,936 in 2012 to 31,725 cases in 2013. The highest increase was seen in crimes against women. There was a whopping 132.3 per cent rise in cases of assault on women, 70.5 per cent increase in cases of insult to the modesty of women and 60 per cent increase in cases of rape.” The cabinet decision to introduce changes in juvenile law should be understood in this context. This perspective is widely supported by India’s urban middle class.

However, some child protection activists are against this decision. According to Anant Kumar Ashtana, a lawyer in the Delhi High Court, “by suggesting change in the juvenile justice system the government has not done justice.” He further adds that “the new juvenile law will not reform a juvenile but school him in crime. It is a serious deviation from the system of parens patriae, a doctrine that believes that the state is the parent of the nation.”

This is a case of the government succumbing to mob pressure. By changing the law, the government is changing the emphasis of juvenile law from reform to punishment. We must weigh the benefits of changing the law against its costs. While it satisfies the demands of a large section of society, it goes against the principle that juveniles should be rehabilitated. 

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