Meet Shabbir (name changed), a 21-year-old motor mechanic at a workshop in Okhla Industrial Area, New Delhi, who was once an inmate of a juvenile correction home. That was in 2010, when he was convicted on a charge of attempt to murder. Today, he is a happy man who earns enough for his family to make ends meet. Ask him about the Bill pending in Parliament that is said to deny many juvenile offenders in cases of “heinous crime” a similar chance of returning to a normal life, and he shakes his head in disbelief. No, he has not heard of it.
Shabbir never misses a chance to say how fortunate he was to get into the correction home and reform himself. “I was under the influence of criminal elements in the society,” he recalls, the joyful pride in having outlived a nightmare bringing a glint to his eyes. “I was seeking adventure and found inspiration in underworld dons. That is how I ended up committing a crime in my adolescence. It was in the correction home that I realised the world has much more to it than what I had seen. It is indeed beautiful. I saw my mistake for what it was and resolved never to repeat it. And I can vouch for the fact that most of my fellow inmates also went through a similar experience.”
Shabbir does not understand the law and its complexities, except that he was released in a couple of years because he was a child when he committed the crime.
The proposed amendments to the Juvenile Justice Act, 2000, incorporated in the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2014, have once again become a topic of intense discussion in the wake of news that the juvenile offender in the Nirbhaya case was about to be released after serving his time in a correction home. There were also reports on some TV channels that he might be kept in jail by slapping the National Security Act (NSA) on him. The NSA allows the government to detain a person for up to one year to “prevent him/her from acting in any manner prejudicial to the security of India, the relations of India with foreign countries, the maintenance of public order, or the maintenance of essential supplies and services” and it can be invoked again and again to keep a person behind bars indefinitely. And it is used only in cases where it is impossible to prove that a person has committed a crime.
According to a 1993 study, more than 70 percent of those detained under the NSA until then had to be released because no charges could be brought against them or there was no evidence to justify pursuing a criminal case.
The Delhi Police was quick to deny that it would be using the NSA to keep the convict in the Nirbhaya case in detention after the end of his term at the correction home.
Meanwhile, the government looks all set to introduce the Bill in the Rajya Sabha during the ongoing winter session, despite opposition from the Left parties, the Congress and the AIADMK. The Lok Sabha passed the Bill in May.
The amendments would alter the law in fundamental ways. But the most controversial among all the envisaged changes is to bring in a “judicial waiver” that would empower Juvenile Justice Boards to try an adolescent in the 16-18 age group under criminal laws. Those opposing the new amendments want the juvenile justice system to be reformed, but without disturbing its clear separation from the criminal justice system. As a country that ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child way back in 1992, the proposed amendments could signal India reneging on an international commitment.
Moreover, the experience of countries such as the US and the UK shows that allowing the criminal justice system to put juveniles on trial (through ‘judicial waiver’) has little impact on juvenile crime rates.
In a recent newspaper article, DMK leader Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, who represents Tamil Nadu in the Rajya Sabha, stressed on the importance of understanding the psychology of a child who commits a crime. “It is now well accepted that adolescence is a period of tremendous psychological, hormonal, emotional and structural changes in the human brain, making it a time of great vulnerability,” she wrote. “Neuroscientists have found that the prefrontal lobe in the human brain, which is responsible for important functions such as planning, reasoning, judgement and impulse control, is only developed by the age of 25 years.”