What An 18 Year Old Thinks About The Juvenile Justice Bill

16 September 2017 10:42 am

By Samvida Venkatesh / Undergraduate student at Princeton University

Think about all the tomorrows of your life.” – Monster, a 1999 novel by Walter Dean Myers on the trial of a 16 year old African American teenager for murder.

The Union Government could soon determine how the tomorrows of teenagers accused of serious crimes will look. On 7 May 2015, the Lok Sabha passed the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill that allows children between 16 and 18 years of age to be tried as adults for serious crimes. The bill is pending before the Rajya Sabha.

Under the bill, in cases where children aged between 16 and 18 are accused of serious crimes including murder and rape, authorities will conduct an assessment of factors including “capacity… to commit and understand the consequences of the alleged offence”. Based on the assessment, children can be prosecuted in an ordinary criminal court, and punished as adults if convicted.

When the mental state of an accused adolescent is evaluated to determine the ability to understand the consequences of an offense, what differentiates one teenager from another? Is it the way he interprets ink-stains? How polite he is to the Board? How much he worships Jack the Ripper? And thus the government must decide: What kind of alleged teenage offenders will find themselves treated as adults? Individualized assessments of this kind are simply not possible.

Primary-school teachers will tell you that the right way to deal with a misbehaving child is to place them between two quieter students so that they have no choice but to work. Or maybe you send them to the corner for a while to think about their actions. But you especially never ever send them to sit with other naughty children, because then you end up with, as teachers are very fond of saying, “a fish-market, not a classroom”. But this could be what the amendments will ensure. To put it in the words of a child who has been through the Juvenile Justice System,

“We may go in for having stolen a pin, but we come out having learnt how to steal gold.”

Add to this, over 55% of apprehended child offenders come from families on the bottom-most rung of the social ladder, with incomes of less than Rs 25,000 a year. Many of these children may not even get proper access to free legal aid. In August, the Tamil Nadu State Legal Services Authority told the Madras high court that only about 4 per cent of alleged child offenders had accessed free legal aid, while the others had to engage private lawyers to defend them.

Latest NCRB figures show that around 53% of arrested children in 2014 were either illiterate or educated up to primary school, half of whom had dropped out before completing class 5. These are kids who have never finished basic schooling, forget having been taught ethics and moral responsibility. If we can have heated debates on the influence of violent video games on children’s minds, then what do we say to this, where children are living with this sort of violence all the time? They don’t need jail – they need education and guidance. Moreover, NCRB has also reported a fall in the arrests of previously arrested children from 9.2% in 2013 to 5.4% in 2014.

But even if legal and psychological reasons are not enough to sway you, here’s a last bit of science. Your pre-frontal cortex doesn’t develop fully until you are 25. So adolescents are more likely to be foolhardy, take risks, and ignore the consequences. Adolescence is a transient phase, and young people who have committed crimes have a better chance of reform if they are given guidance and a chance at rehabilitation, rather than being put in jail with adult convicts. Behavioral Psychologist, B.F Skinner’s (in)famous words, “Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything”, holds true here.

I conclude with a gem from Harper Lee, “They’ve done it before and they’ll do it again and when they do it—seems that only the children weep.” And if she’s said it, who are we mere humans to disagree?