The whole country is outraged at the recent judgment by the juvenile court in the Delhi rape case. The teenage criminal has been awarded the maximum punishment under the present laws. He has been sent to a reform home for juveniles for three years. Now that he is already serving the sentence, let us look at the reality of these reformation homes. What do these reformation homes do to truly reform juveniles in conflict with the law?
As a researcher working primarily on child protection policies, I have often found that while most policies are well intentioned and intricate in their design, they face severe implementation deficits. Juvenile reformation homes or "observation homes" in India suffer from multiple shortfalls. While on paper, they are ideal spaces meant to reform juveniles and rehabilitate them into the society; their reality is rather sordid. Characterised by crumbling infrastructure, these places display decrepit standards of hygiene. The food and clothing provided is sub-standard. Basic facilities such as bathroom and bathing facilities are abysmal. Many face a shortage of staff.
All this, however, pales in comparison to the fundamental problem with these reform homes. A terrible understanding of ‘detention’ among the staff, which translates into treating those inside as criminals without investing in their education, reformation or ensuring that they understand the nature of their crime, means that the environment required to ‘reform’ a person is absent. These homes rarely possess adequate trained staff, counselors and psychiatrists, who can clinically attempt to help reform the juvenile. Bullying and in-fighting dominate these observation homes. Juvenile criminals usually participate more frequently in petty crime within the confines of these homes than undergo reform. A recent study by the Asian Centre for Human Rights labels juvenile homes as “India’s hell holes” because of the predominance of child sexual abuse that takes place within their confines. In almost all the cases recorded on the report, a member of the staff of the home carried out the sexual abuse, be it security guards, managers, cooks, wardens or others. On interaction with the inmates of the homes, I found that none of them are usually aware of the nature of their crime and are blankly living within the confines, serving their sentence and waiting to leave it after completion of their sentence. Frankly, these observation homes as they exist today are the last place that can reform juveniles.
A colossal problem in India, when it comes to child protection and juvenile justice, is the dichotomy between our laws and policies on paper and their implementation. The main policy for child protection in India is the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS). This policy covers every aspect of child protection and rehabilitation in the country and looks at children in need of care and protection along with juvenile in conflict with the law. Though well intentioned, its implementation faces many problems that can be easily solved if adequate attention is paid to these areas. Administrative problems, such as lack of updated data and regular reporting, choke the system. Instead of augmenting the budget allocations to create a robust system of child protection, the ICPS faced a reduction by 100 crores-- 25 percent of its total budget this year. The 300 crore allocated at present is not enough to adequately cover the policy let alone create a scope for reforms. Moreover, there are multiple stakeholders involved in child protection—the Department of Woman and Child Development, the Child Welfare Committees, the Juvenile Justice Boards, the various government departments (Labour, Health and Education), the police and the NGOs dealing with children. Each of these operates in its own silo, resulting in a lack of collective understanding of child protection. All this adds to a fragmented perceptions and consequently poor implementation.
The verdict the Delhi rape case demonstrates all that is wrong with our juvenile justice system. Given the current juvenile justice system, one cannot pick a flaw with the verdict in itself, the criminal has been handed over the harshest punishment possible within the confines of this system. Therefore the problem is not with this verdict per se, as much as it is with the system. We can't ask for the change in the sentence for this one case alone. We need to divert our attention and energy in demanding a complete reform of the juvenile justice and child protection system. Many suggestions have been made to prevent a repeat of the judgment in the Delhi rape case. Perhaps, in dealing with a heinous crime, the spirit of the law needs to take precedence over the strict letter of the law. But such a decision would not pass muster with India's higher courts. Others have suggested bringing the age of child for criminal acts back to 16, which it was before 2000 when India changed it to 18 in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child.
My personal suggestion is that our laws need to re-define children as individuals below the age group of 16, and define those within the ages of 16 and 18 as adolescents. 64 percent of all juvenile criminals fall under the age group of 16-18 years. A classification of adolescent would not automatically mean handing out harsher sentences for juvenile offenders between the ages of 16 and 18, or abandoning those in genuine need of care and protection. It would mean recognising that this segment of the population is neither child nor is it at par with adults. It should therefore be treated legally on a case-by-case basis.
The arguments opposing the lowering the age of a child or creating a category for adolescents are particularly misplaced. The real issue that needs our attention is not the legal age of the juvenile. The issue that needs our urgent attention is the state of these reform homes. Whatever be the age of the juvenile, do these reform homes today truly help in reforming juveniles in conflict with the law? Are juveniles being given a fair chance to reform? Are the correctional facilities adequate to ensure that its inhabitants don't turn into adult criminals once they leave its confines?
Reforming the juvenile observation homes is the first step in reforming the system of child protection and juvenile justice. These homes have to be created as holistic spaces, where juveniles in conflict with the law find themselves converted into responsible adult citizens. Mass outrage can be a good thing, especially in a country like ours. But we cannot allow outrage to blind our rationality. Our outrage must move beyond one particular case and one particular judgment. It must work towards totally reforming the present structures of dealing with juveniles in conflict with the law.
Sarah Farooqui is a researcher on child protection policies at the Public Affairs Centre, Bangalore, a Takshashila scholar and the assistant editor of Pragati- The Indian National Interest Review. She tweets at @sarahfarooqui20.