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HT Explains: Trying juveniles as adults

ByAbraham Thomas
May 23, 2024 12:18 PM IST

The cancellation of the bail of the 17-year-old boy involved in the car crash in Pune, which killed two people, turned the spotlight on trying juveniles as adults

Pune’s Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) on Wednesday cancelled the bail of the 17-year-old boy involved in the car crash that killed two people four days earlier. The boy was remanded in 14-day custody days after JJB’s earlier order granting him bail within 15 hours provoked outrage.

The Pune car crash involving a 17-year-old killed two people. (HT PHOTO)
The Pune car crash involving a 17-year-old killed two people. (HT PHOTO)

The Pune Police, which booked the boy for causing death due to rash and negligent driving under the Indian Penal Code’s Section 304A, on Tuesday filed a petition asking the accused be tried as an adult. It also sought a review of the May 19 order that granted him bail with lenient conditions including a 300-word essay on road safety.

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The order for trying the boy, whose father is one of Pune’s prominent builders, as an adult was awaited.

Legal process for juveniles

All accused aged under 18 were tried under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act or JJ Act, 2000. This changed with the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015. The law created a category of the juvenile accused aged between 16-18 involved in heinous offences punishable with a minimum sentence under the IPC or any other law for over seven years.

A JJB is mandated to carry out a preliminary assessment to ascertain whether a juvenile is to be tried as an adult after an application is made in this regard. Section 15 of the 2015 law refers to the assessment of the mental and physical capacity to commit an offence, ability to understand its consequences, and the circumstances in which it was allegedly committed. A JJB can seek the assistance of experienced psychologists or other experts for the assessment.

In the case of the Pune accident, the accused faces a maximum of two-year imprisonment under Section 304A. The offence does not fall under the definition of heinous.

The 2015 law categorises offences based on gravity. Heinous offences include murder, rape, or dacoity. The offences punishable with imprisonment from three to seven years are termed “serious” offences. “Petty” offences are punishable with under three-year sentences.

Supreme Court verdicts

A group of men and a minor raped a paramedical student on a moving bus in 2012 when the JJ Act of 2000 was in force. The rape and the student’s subsequent death provoked outrage.

A petition in the Supreme Court sought a sub-categorisation to allow the JJB to decide whether the minor offender in the case can be tried as an adult. The court in 2014 left it to the wisdom of the legislature to consider the matter. “A power to classify being extremely broad and based on diverse considerations of executive pragmatism, the judicature cannot rush in where even the legislature warily treads.” The court said the objective of the JJ Act is to ensure rehabilitation of children in conflict with the law in society.

The Supreme Court in its 2022 order in a 2017 murder of a six-year-old Gurugram student delved into the aspects required to determine the trial of juveniles as adults. “A child with average intelligence/IQ will have the intellectual knowledge of the consequences of his actions. But whether or not he is able to control himself or his actions will depend on his level of emotional competence,” the court said. “Risky driving may result in an accident. But if emotional competence is not high, the urge for thrill-seeking may get the better of his intellectual understanding.”

The court observed the decisions or actions of a child may be heavily influenced by peers or impulsive tendencies. It added this coupled with the child’s lack of experience and inability to gauge the long-term consequences of actions can lead to “impulsive/reckless decision-making.”

Global practise

In 1985, the UN General Assembly adopted the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (Beijing Rules), mandating member states to refrain from fixing the low minimum age of criminal responsibility. The rules emphasise factoring in emotional, mental, and intellectual maturity. They prohibit capital punishment for juveniles but do not advocate leniency in dealing with offenders in serious cases. India is also a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of Child, 1990, which defines a child to be aged below 18.

Canada

In Canada, the Youth Criminal Justice Act of 2002 provides for criminal justice in the 12-18 age group. This law has special provisions for a young person who commits a “serious offence” punishable with over five-year imprisonment. It defines “serious violent offences” such as first and second-degree murder, manslaughter, aggravated sexual assault, and attempted murder. For violent and serious crimes, the punishment cannot exceed the maximum punishment awarded to adults for the same offence. Canadian law provides for a Youth Justice Court to order the mental and psychological assessment for deciding on an application to sentence a young person as an adult.

The UK

The law in the UK provides that juveniles, especially those under 15, should be tried as far as possible by the Youth Court while reserving trial in the Crown Court for serious cases. It makes a distinction for first-time offenders aged 12-14 and those under 12 years.

Under the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act, 2000, a person below 18 convicted of a serious offence may be sentenced to a period not exceeding the maximum term of imprisonment for adults. This includes a life sentence as well.

The young offenders are kept in separate institutions and not jails. A sentence exceeding two years in respect of youth aged 12-17 years and accused of a grave offence is made only when such a sentence is a “realistic possibility”.

The US

The age of majority in the US is 18. But the high rate of juvenile offences permits nearly all states to try persons under 18 as adults with suitable exceptions. In California, persons older than 14 can be tried as adults for committing crimes such as rape, robbery or murder. In New York, the age of juvenility is fixed at 16 years. This permits persons aged between 13-16 to be tried as adults.

A judge has the discretion to waive jurisdiction and transfer a case to the adult criminal courts for serious offences. In Florida, discretion is given to the state prosecutor to decide whether a juvenile is to be tried as an adult.

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