NEW DELHI, India — Earlier this month, in separate attacks within 24 hours of each other, two children — aged 2 and 5 — were raped in New Delhi.
Several suspects have been arrested in each case, but those accused of raping the 2-year-old are likely to walk away after a maximum of three years in detention. The suspects, both 17, can only be tried under juvenile law.
Unlike laws in the United States that allow many minors to be tried as adults, India’s current juvenile justice act maintains a fierce separation between the trial of children and those 18 and over.
This practice has recently come under intense fire for limiting the sentences handed down to juveniles who commit heinous crimes. The call for change grew louder when one of the perpetrators of the infamous Delhi gang rape, who was 17 years and 6 months old at the time, received the maximum sentence for his age: three years in a rehabilitation home. While four others have been sentenced to death for rape and murder, their youngest accomplice will walk free this December.
Primarily as a reaction to this criticism, a bill amending juvenile law has been introduced in India’s parliament. The proposed changes would essentially make these rules more similar to the punitive American system; If the bill is passed, special boards will have the power to decide if certain crimes are grave enough for an accused person between 16 and 18 years of age to be tried under “adult” laws, allowing for harsher punishments including life imprisonment or death.
Following last week’s two rapes, Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has called for the age limit for the waiver to be reduced further, to include 15-year-olds.
Human rights lawyers, juvenile home authorities, research organizations and child rights NGOs, however, vehemently oppose lowering the minimum age.
“Tomorrow, if you have a crime committed by a 12-year-old or a 13- or 14-year-old — and it is not beyond the realm of possibility in this city — is the law going to be changed at each instance a crime happens?” said Vrinda Grover, a prominent human rights lawyer.
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According to Grover, the problem lies in serious systemic lapses in the Indian legal and social system, unglamorous issues the state and central government are ignoring in favor of dramatic short-term measures. Most juvenile offenders are economically vulnerable school dropouts, for instance, but nothing has been proposed to address this underlying problem.
“Why is it that in a two-minute power outage, a person feels he can pick up, rape and abandon a child?” asked Grover. She pointed out that both the gang rapes last week took place in working-class areas, where police presence is negligible. “Despite all that we are told, the kind of patrolling that inspires confidence in the citizen as well as some fear of the law is not taking place in Delhi.”
Grover believes that reducing the age limit for adult sentences will neither change conviction rates nor provide an effective deterrent. “As someone who has worked in the criminal legal system, I can tell you there is no fear of the law,” she said.
Mohammed Aarif, a superintendent at a juvenile custodial shelter in Delhi, agrees. “You can make the toughest laws, but they won’t fear it. Right now there are such strict laws for adults, but even then, crime is not reducing,” he said.
Aarif supervises Prayas Observation Home for Boys, a highly regarded shelter created by a nonprofit working with the government, where boys in conflict with the law reside for short terms before their cases go to trial. While most stay for two to four weeks, some who have committed serious crimes can stay for as long as three to five months.
When GlobalPost visited, residents politely greeted visitors on their way to informal education classes and vocational training.
“Those who come out of juvenile homes are basically coming out as hardened criminals.”
According to Aarif, most of the boys came from slum areas where they took up odd jobs alongside their parents instead of getting an education. Without supervision or opportunities, many fell in with gangs.
Though repeat offenders are rare, Aarif says, “aftercare” — supervision and check-ins with former criminals — is essential and should be mandated by law.
“These boys face problems in reentry [into society] itself because of stigmatization. [So long as] the system does not provide aftercare, they cannot minimize juvenile delinquency,” said Aarif. Though aftercare services are not currently mandatory, Prayas checks in on the boys after they leave the center, sending officers to track activities and provide counseling.
But Prayas is an exception. The Asian Center for Human Rights, an NGO that has studied juvenile homes in India, found that most facilities almost never provide young offenders with the vocational training and rehabilitation that the current law states they should receive.
“Beyond detaining them and feeding them and giving some clothes in exceptional cases, essentially there is nothing — no reform, no guidance,” says Suhas Chakma, the director of ACHR and co-author of the study.
“As a consequence, you find that those who come out of juvenile homes are basically coming out as hardened criminals.”
According to Chakma, juvenile homes in India sorely lack supervision and inspection by district authorities. Sexual abuse and indoctrination into gangs goes on unchecked.
“If you don’t have inspections, you don’t have control over whether they are even being fed properly,” said Chakma. He argues that adequate financial resources and independent monitoring are more urgent than harsher punishments.
But the public rarely bays for more money to be spent on young offenders. Death sentences, unfortunately, make better headlines for Indians enraged by violent crimes.
Editor's note: This article has been updated from an earlier version.