Ruminations Galore


Treating crime not age as the yardstick for punishment

The recent much publicized gang-rape/murder in New Delhi has once again emphasized the need for the law to keep pace with the tectonic shift in our social values, technology and human physiology.

The law needs to respond to these challenges not only at the level of legislation but also and equally significantly at the level of the judicial process.

In the past few decades, the steady spread of sexual imagery across all forms of media has brought about a discernible change in social values. Everything, from advertisements in the erstwhile family-friendly print media to music videos is pervaded by overtly sexual images.

Images that would have shocked our moral sensibilities even a decade ago are now considered a non-issue, so much so that children, the ones that are reaching puberty before they even turn teenagers, are subjected to such imagery right from an early age. Repeatedly.

With early onset of puberty, young children, subjected to such glaring sexual imagery are experimenting at a much younger age than before, without the traditional restraints and guidance of watchful teachers and parents. Is it then any surprise that more and more minors are turning to crimes, and violent crimes at that.

This trend was gruesomely highlighted by the recent gang-rape/murder case where reportedly the most violent of the accused is a minor.

We can not control the media, nor reset our social values to pre-90′s era, but we can bring in legislation that serves to counteract the growing belief among the youth and minors, in the eyes of the law, that they can get away with any crime against women.

To begin with legal devices can be put in place to exploit the current and future technological advancements to ensure the safety of women and other vulnerable sections of society. One possible course of action in this regard can be making it mandatory for all concerned authorities to install CCTV cameras at public places and keeping a check on public vehicles through GPS and tagging of drivers. What’s more, the feeds from such cameras must be stored for at least one year, in case law enforcement agencies need it to strengthen their case against any accused or use it for providing safety to citizenry in general.

Just to ensure that the government finds the necessary motivation to provide financial backing to such projects the judiciary can take the initiative and come up with concrete guidelines that necessitate the use of such technologies to provide security to all sections of the society.

Posting guards on the buses is at best a stop-gap measure. We have to be willing to use all the facilities available to us at any given time to provide the best possible solution to a problem, and with India’s continuing rise as a technological giant, it can’t afford to neglect the use of technology to ensure the safety of the people.

Finally, the third aspect that needs to be addressed concerns human physiology – falling age of perpetrators of heinous crimes due to early maturity (both physical and mental) of humans. In this regard the Delhi Metro offers what appears to be a perfect solution.

If you’ve ever traveled by the Delhi Metro, you’ll find that each Metro station has a board which reads that if the child is over 3 ft tall, the parent/guardian must buy the full ticket for such a child.

So here you have a situation where solely on the basis of physiological characteristics of a human being the authorities are putting him/her at par with an adult.

This can be translated into criminal justice system by doing away with the current definition of a juvenile, wherein a child under the age of 18 doesn’t have to face any consequences for heinous crimes that are at par with the adults.

In fact for a crime for which an adult can be hanged, a juvenile gets a relatively token sentence of three years.

So the justice system must make the transition from age to the severity of crime as the basis on which the punishment is meted out.

After the ghastly Khooni Darwaaza rape case, in which too juveniles were the perpetrators, the current case has once again triggered a public outcry for necessary changes in the law to bring the juveniles accused of heinous crimes to justice.

In this context it is interesting to note how archaic provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act sound at a time when most children seem to be losing their age of innocence within the first decade of their life.

According to the Juvenile Justice Act:

Juveniles and adults can not be kept together in correctional homes.
Juveniles, tried under the Juveniles Justice Act, can not be kept in prisons, once they turn adults.
If the minor turns adult during the pendency of the trial, and is then found guilty, such accused can not be placed in the correctional homes.

Now I understand the need for different sentencing for juveniles and adults. I do. But do we really need to treat all accused minors as equals? Should a 15 year old rapist be treated the same as a 10 year old who steals a loaf of bread? More importantly, why should a 15 year old rapist be treated differently from, say, a 19 year old rapist? Because, other than the difference in age, there is nothing that separates the 15 year old from the 19 year old.

Due to the current provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act, the 15 year old get off with a much lighter sentence, compared to an adult, even if the 15 year old is just or even more violent than the adult!

Therefore, keeping pace with the above mentioned irreversible changes, the law must use the nature of the crime as a yardstick and provide uniform punishment, irrespective of the age of the accused.

It has been reported in the newspapers that responding to the nation wide public outcry in the recentgang-rape/murder case, the government is formulating a plan to treat even a 17 year old accused of rape as an adult, because of his proximity to adulthood. This is a laudable step but it falls much short of addressing the current situation. It doesn’t take into account younger offenders who are just as capable of causing the same injuries as any adult.

So the only solution seems to be to do away with the archaic Juvenile Justice Act and make the nature of crime the sole criteria for award of punishment.

One Response to “Treating crime not age as the yardstick for punishment”

  1. 1
    linuxlala Says:

    Since I first came out with this article, the chants for restructuring of the laws governing criminal juveniles has only gotten louder.

    Firstpost carried an article presenting a counter view. Majority of the comments seem to indicate that more people are in favour of criminal juveniles being served a harsher sentence.

    Today, Times of India, has an article by Sr. Supreme Court lawyer, Vikas Pahwa, and he too raises almost all the same points that I did.

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