With old Juvenile Act lying on back-burner, new draft likely to reduce age from 18 to 16

Srinagar: Even before the first Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act (JJAC) 2013 could be implemented properly, the Jammu and Kashmir government has put a draft of the new Act on Social Welfare Department’s website. The new draft proposes questionable changes including lowering age for criminal liability of juveniles from 18 to 16 years and introducing a Chapter on Adoption. The authorities, however, say that they are still seeking suggestions pertaining to the Act.

According to the new draft of Jammu and Kashmir Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2018, the age of criminal liability should be lowered to 16 years in case of the heinous offences. The draft does not define the term “heinous offences”, making minor ‘stone pelters’ vulnerable to arrests and comparatively stringent punishment.

However, Chairman, Selection-cum-Oversight Committee Justice Hasnain Masoodi, says that JJAC is an “evolving concept”. Illustrating the incidents like that of Nirbhaya Rape case in Delhi and rape of a minor in Kathua, he says that such incidents pushed the authorities to make changes with regard to the age of criminals.

“From the experiences and lessons we learnt and the developments that took place since 2013, the Act needed to be changed. After Nirbhaya, the juveniles at an advanced age from 16-18 years cannot be treated at par with the juveniles below the age of 16 years. At least, not when it comes to heinous crimes,” says Justice Masoodi.

Defining the term “heinous crimes”, he says, “We divide juveniles into 2 groups: below 16 and between the age of 16-18 years. Likewise, offences are divided into heinous offences and other offences. Heinous offences are punishable with a sentence of more than 7 years.”

Adding, he says, “When it comes to the juveniles of age 16, we don’t intend on treating them like adults. But we don’t intend to treat them like minors also. They will be tried in special courts called the court of sessions.”

In reference to the difference in crimes committed in the conflict-ridden valley and various states in India and vulnerability of minors to be jailed for pelting stones, he says, “juveniles are being used in drug peddling, begging and sometimes they commit crimes that cannot be ignored. There is always an element of misuse in any Act but you have to look at the larger good.”

He, however, maintained that it is still a draft and public opinion will be welcomed before it is enacted.

“We plan to have a round-table conference on November 2. All the stakeholders will be invited. There will be a thorough discussion on the draft,” he says.

The new draft law also extends the application to cases of adopting children. Child rights experts also say that the new draft means a child adopted from outside the state (non-state subject) would get the property rights which could be interpreted as an attack on the special status of J&K.

When it comes to adoption, a new chapter has been introduced in the draft. It extends the application of adopting children which according to experts means that children from outside the state can be adopted here.

“They will have the property rights and how will you save the special status of Jammu and Kashmir then?” ask the experts.

Admitting to the four-year delay in implementation of the 2013 Act, Mission Director ICPS, G A Sofi told Free Press Kashmir that ICPS is only an implementing body and that the act has been formed by the Secretariat authorities.

While the status of the creation of Shelter Homes lies at zero, he says, “We created Juvenile Justice Boards in all districts, Child welfare committees, District child protection units. Around 1000 cases are with Child welfare committees and around 2000 with Juvenile Justice Boards,” he informs adding, “We have two Juvenile Observation Homes, one in Jammu and one in Srinagar, 37 government-run children homes and 598 mapped NGO run children homes.”

Child Right experts, on the other hand, pose one question, “It is a right of children that we do whatever is in their best interest. Where is the best interest of children when you reduce the age of juveniles to 16?”

“What if a 7-year-old rapes someone tomorrow? Will you reduce the age to 7? Instead of bringing in new Acts, old acts should be amended and implemented. Preference must be given to Right to Education and other basic rights first,” they suggested.

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