Should the below-16 face full trial if offences are heinous?

A Madhya Pradesh HC judge has rued the Juvenile Justice Act’s inability to punish delinquents aged below 16 while rejecting bail for a 15-year-old juvenile accused of raping a 10-year-old girl. The judge observed that the legislature hasn’t “learnt lessons” from the Nirbhaya case, where one rapist was just under 18. This had triggered JJA 2015 amendments that allowed trial of juveniles over 16, when accused of heinous offences, as adults in children’s courts. But first a Juvenile Justice Board evaluates them for mental and physical capacity and ability to understand consequences of the crime. If found guilty, jail terms for the remainder of the sentence commences only on turning 21.

Interestingly, during the parliamentary debate at least one MP had wondered if a future 15-year-old offender accused of a heinous crime would prompt further lowering of age. Victims of rape or other heinous offences will understandably feel let down if violators get just three-year spells in a special home.

The issue here is of balance – if a juvenile less than 16 is credibly accused of an extremely heinous offence, he can be in the same halfway house system as those in the 16-18 group are now. Determining whether someone less than 16 can indeed be tried in such a fashion must be a thorough process. So, were Parliament to consider making exceptions for JJA’s age of criminality for extremely heinous offences, the amendment must be written with care. Heinous offences must be well defined to minimise subjectivity.

There’s another tragic problem: whether designated homes where juvenile offenders, including those who may face further trial, are placed are actually “places of safety” are in doubt. Any change in the juvenile justice system must consider that, too.


This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.


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