MANOJ MITTA IN THE TIMES OF INDIA
NEW DELHI: In the shocking case of a Chennai high school student allegedly killing his teacher, the maximum sentence that can be imposed on him is three years in a reformatory.
For, when children in the age group of seven to 18 years commit any crime, they are dealt with more humanely under the Juvenile Justice Act 2000, which is in keeping with the UN Child Rights Convention. As they are considered to be less capable of controlling their impulses or taking care of themselves, the law provides a special custodial, adjudicatory and sentencing mechanism for “juveniles in conflict with law”.
Irrespective of the severity of the crime, the cases against juveniles in conflict with law do not go before a regular criminal court but are instead taken before a juvenile justice board, which is set up in every district. Each board consists of a judicial magistrate and two social workers, one of whom at least should be a woman.
Though the law acknowledges the culpability of juveniles for the crimes committed by them, its object is not to punish but to rehabilitate them. While the magistrate is crucial to determining whether the juvenile has committed an offence or not, the social workers have a greater say in taking care of his needs. In the event of a difference of opinion among the three members of the board, the majority opinion will prevail.
On arresting a juvenile, the police are required to inform not just his parents but also the state-appointed probation officer who is tasked to assist the board. Pending the board’s inquiry, the juvenile is lodged in an “observation home” rather than the regular jail. Even so, juveniles are also provided with a liberal bail regime.
The penalties prescribed for juveniles are less severe. Though the minimum sentence that can be given for murder under the regular law is life imprisonment, the juvenile law stipulates that no juvenile can ever be sentenced to life.
Once the board is satisfied that the juvenile has committed the offence he has been charged with, it has the option of passing a wide range of orders ranging from admonition and counseling to the parent and the juvenile to being released on probation for good conduct or being sent to a special home for a maximum term of three years. Under the UN rules, “The institutionalization of young persons should be a measure of last resort and for the minimum necessary period.”