‘Handover some hi-tech gadget to a five-year-old and he’ll help you to explore what you couldn’t. He’ll pick up, even before you begin. This indicates that children today aren’t just acutely sharp, but sassy too.
Now, take a look at the crime statistics of the last decade. There’s a surge of 69% in the juvenile crimes (Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation). In 2001, only 16509 incidents were reported. But in 2015, the number escalated to 41385.
Don’t stop over here. Spot on, you will find children driving vehicles. Go to the schools and you will find teachers rarely reprimanding the students. Walk down a lane, young boys are too occupied with smoking. Even they aren’t alien to drugs. Take a survey, you will find they work too, earn for their family. A larger percentage of them supervise the households. They have taken up the responsibility that is far off their childhood.
Despite this, they’re still considered as minors. They cannot be punished— for what otherwise is punishable. They may commit an(y) unlawful act. Law has to condone that. They are, however, yet to cross the threshold of 18 years. So, the State’s law too doesn’t hold them criminally liable. They have to be shown leniency.
The notion to espouse a ‘Lenient Approach’ for child offenders is due to cognitive faculties. A child or minor below 18 years lacks the abilities including— imagination, consciousness, perception, thinking, and judgement. To punish him at this stage is amenable, neither in India nor in J&K.
There are countries wherein ‘Punitive Approach’ is adopted. Take an example of Saudi Arabia. In comparison to India, it has the least violent crime rate. It ranks higher, 25th on Safety Index— 2018/2019.Whereas, India ranks lower, 57th. And, the latter has higher Crime Index, 43 points, than Saudi Arabia, 28 points.
In countries that have adopted ‘Punitive Approach’, the age of criminal liability is determined by ‘Natural Puberty’. No sooner a child reaches the age of 12 years, he’s held criminally responsible. He’s presumed to be a grown-up on his biological growth. It, therefore, puts the cognitive growth out of relevance.
Point taken is— should a child be penalised at such stage? Or, it’s better to wait for the cognitive faculties to develop? Well, to assert the imperative we must dig deeper.
The cognitive growth takes place in two phases. First, from 6-12 years, with an ability to think clearly. And second, from 12-18 years of age, with the adolescence and complex thinking involved. It’s the later stage, in which child focuses on personal decision-making. He begins to question the societal norms, drafts his own code of ethics and chooses his areas of interest. But it’s a process-incessant, and may go beyond the age of 20. Besides, it’s based on the psychological development of a person. There’s no guarantee of absolute maturity. That substantiates the fact—it cannot be a conclusive test to determine the criminal liability.
On the other side, ‘biological growth’ renders a person capable of doing more complex things. Let alone the hormonal changes. There are factors like— aggression, intolerance, violence and many other expressions that a child experiences in his puberty. Like, a hungry man who is tempted to food, same way a child holds his impulse to indulge in non-conformity. He may get inclined towards deviant activities. When such conducts are left uncorrected, the cognitive faculties get contaminated. Now, how should we prevent that? Let’s ascertain.
Whenever a person intends to do an act, at least two elements shape the event –the Internal and the External Control’. ‘Internal Control’ is a private affair, something which is intrinsic in nature. It can be infused by parenting as well as family environment. Religious, and ethical principles too influence it. Subsequently, ‘External Control’ is the public affair. It entails Law, peer groups, and Schooling. Law, however, is a prime factor. It needs to have a deterrent effect. It cannot afford to be vaguely lenient. Moreover, internal scrutiny is least reliable in the cosmopolitan culture. The outer control, thus, becomes fundamental.
Let it be noted. It’s a teacher’s strictness that prompts the student’s seriousness in class. Once a child assumes there is leniency on some part, he assumes casual approach. Warn a child against fire— he stays away from it. Allow him to explore it, he not only brings trouble for others but endangers himself too. No matter, how much delinquent a child is, parents defend him. This in turn worsens his conduct. Same is applicable to a state. Every time it drafts a legislation of ‘Special Treatment’, it weakens the ‘External Control’. And, an individual stops mending his conduct.
Off late, there is an epidemic surge in child crimes. Children are committing most depraving, and heinous crimes. The ‘Lenient Approach’ has become superfluous. A safe heaven too. The ‘reformative approach’ is meant to change an individual’s life, but the ‘deterrent approach’ has results. Examples are in front of us. Hold a person for the violation of traffic rules, others will institutionalise it. There are states like— USA, England, China, and Iran, where deterrence is part of the process. USA, the torch bearer of juvenile justice, has even retained death penalty for minors, of 17-years age.
J&K too should reconsider the sentencing frame for juveniles. If not the whole model, but some elements of deterrence can takeover. Some part of the childhood has already become adulthood. Time is ripe to reset the age of criminal liability.