Spontaneous Debates: Juvenile Justice in India

The other day, as I walked back from HKS, I bumped into a couple of friends pursuing their LLM at Harvard Law. The conversation somehow steered from international human rights law to juvenile justice in India (specifically in the context of the Delhi gang rape, where one of the accused was a 17 year old who was sentenced to three years in a reformatory, the maximum punishment under India’s Juvenile Justice Act).

This has obviously sparked a lot of debate in India – the WSJ has captured this debate very well through its coverage (ref this blog post).  However, it is another post by WSJ that also captures the international perspective, and refers directly back to the spontaneous debate I had with my friends on Mt Auburn St.

Currently, India’s Juvenile Justice act caps the punishment for any crime, no matter how serious, for any person younger than 18 years old. The emphasis of juvenile detention is apparently on rehabilitation and not on punishment.

While that sounds like a noble enough cause, I believe that there is some merit to the argument that teenagers today are growing in maturity much faster than previous generations (of course, I’d like to bring empirical data to back this hypothesis). At the same time, some crimes (e.g., rape) are pre-meditated, planned out and executed with brutality. For such crimes, having an age shield does not make sense. Rather, it might be better to use some other measures to determine whether the defendant had the “mental and intellectual maturity” especially in instances where the crime is a particularly serious one.

While India raised the age from 16 to 18 in 1992 (as part of its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child), other countries such as the US and UK (which are also signatories) have created the space for exceptional cases where minors can be tried as adults.

As the WSJ writes, “In the U.S., prosecutors can appeal to court requesting the case of a minor be moved from a juvenile court to an adult one, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice. Judges in a juvenile court also have the power to rule that a minor be tried as an adult. In cases where the offense is grave, such as rape or murder, criminal courts — where adults are tried — can independently call for jurisdiction over the matter.”

To me, replicating this in India makes a lot of sense, but my views are still evolving on the subject so would love to hear more arguments for and against such a change.

Photo credit: WSJ/ Associated Press

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