This article has been authored by Shruti Avinash, a second year student at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.
In a recent order, the Delhi High Court granted bail to a 19-year-old murder accused on grounds that although he is an adult, his mental age may not be in consonance with the legislated age of maturity. This article examines the rationale behind 18 being the age of adulthood, and weighs the adequacy of conflating criminal responsibility between adults and juveniles.
In the present case, the Delhi High Court reasoned that since a child may be tried as an adult for heinous crimes, in specific cases, a child who has only just crossed 18 may be afforded protection as a juvenile in conflict with the law. This raises many questions in relation to the criminal justice system, including the intentions behind trying a minor as an adult, and the (unprecedented) treatment of an adult as a juvenile. The present decision of the court appears to be in favor of a reformative approach, granting a young-adult the opportunity to avoid the ‘regressive influences’ of jail. The Court also noted that the capacity of a neo-adult to take decisions as an adult or comprehend in entirety, the consequences of actions of a violent nature, may not be fully developed. Resultantly, the Court granted bail to the accused on the submission of a personal bond to the tune of Rs. 50,000/-.
Reasons for a Given Age of Criminal Responsibility
While the age of criminal responsibility varies from each jurisdiction to other, with the age being as low as 9 years in some countries, a shared commonality is the presence of an age of criminal responsibility. There is nearly always a threshold age, below which, criminal responsibility is not attributed to the accused. Much of international advocacy for Child Rights sees an exceedingly low age of criminal responsibility as an act of violence against children. It is believed that juveniles and children themselves are victims of circumstances, often being exploited and forced into crime by the adults around them. Hence, the approach toward handling juveniles in conflict with the law necessarily sees them as children in need of protection and adopts reformative measures to that effect. Further, it is believed that classification of juvenile offenders in the same group as adult criminals places them in prison cells with hardened criminals and forecloses their opportunity to reintegrate into society through reformation and rehabilitative growth. These juvenile offenders may even face violence and exploitation at the hands of older prisoners, sealing their identities deeper into them.
Position in India
India uses the framework of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 to decide upon issues of Juvenile Justice. The legislation is comprehensive, and makes provisions suited to the needs of children. The JJ Act was amended in 2015 to allow juvenile offenders in the age group of 16-18 to be tried as adults if they have allegedly committed a heinous offence (an offence punishable with 7 years of imprisonment or more). This distinction was made in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya Gangrape, in which one of the offenders was a 17-year-old minor.
However, one prime convention adhered to by countries that have a higher age of criminal responsibility is a corresponding provision of ‘parental liability’ for the fixation of criminal liability on parents and guardians. The idea of affixing criminal liability upon parents for juvenile delinquency is tethered to the notion that parents and guardians are necessarily responsible for the protection and care of their children, and allowing children any form of exposure to crime constitutes a form of abuse. Countries like France, the United Kingdom and Singapore have stringent frameworks for parental liability. The philosophical justification of parental liability laws asserts that it is not possible for the State alone to prevent and control juvenile crime. Moreover, placing liability on the juvenile alone may be counterproductive insofar as the juvenile is denied the opportunity for reformation. Notably, parental liability is understood not just in terms of parents undertaking vicarious liability for property damage, but also in terms of devolution of criminal liability on parents for the acts of their wards. This raises the question that in those jurisdictions where neither juveniles or their guardians are held criminally responsible for their actions, where is the State transferring liability?
Neo-Adulthood and Criminality
Research in criminology and developmental psychology makes a compelling case for the differential treatment of neo-adults in conflict with the law. The fact that young-adults continue to develop neurologically till the age of 25 and have a high prevalence of atypical brain development should ideally prevent the Justice system from classifying them as hardened criminals. Young-adults are more likely to act on impulse and are more susceptible to emotional distortions. Research shows that the treatment of young offenders as irredeemable criminals makes their criminality a self-fulfilling prophecy. This outcome is more pronounced in young-adults since they are not afforded an erasure of their criminal record as juvenile offenders are.
The fact that young-adult offenders are in a grey area must be acknowledged. This class of persons are especially vulnerable since they may not be out of the wrenches of (bad) parenting and yet they are treated as self-sufficient responsible members of society. Accordingly, the strong correlation between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) and higher prevalence of recidivism/crime among young-adults makes it important that the State takes a softer view of their offences. Unfortunately, it appears that the Indian State has relieved Juveniles of significant criminal liability while placing an inordinate amount of criminal responsibility upon young-adults. With there being no stark psychological and cognitive leaps between the age of 17 and 18, this artificial distinction created by the State affects one group adversely. Hence, it is important that India evolve an inclusive policy for the reformative treatment of young-adults in conflict with the law.
The Present Verdict
In granting bail to the accused, the Delhi High Court held that:
‘If a child (between the age 16 to 18 years) can be treated as an adult for the purpose of trial in heinous offences, a child who has just about crossed the legislated age of adulthood i.e., 18 years and remains a young-adult (19-20 years) can certainly be afforded the protection of his liberty akin to a child in conflict with law.’
In proposing a reformative approach to trying young-adults between the age of 19-20, the Court has undoubtedly moved a step toward more equitable prosecution. However, the court has not been able to justify implementing such a pronouncement for bail in a heinous crime by stating that juveniles may be tried as adults for heinous crimes. Such a pronouncement is paradoxical insofar as it advocates criminal liability for juveniles and reduces the criminal liability of young-adults in the same vein. The Court ought to have made a distinction in a softened approach toward young-adults based on the nature of the crime, responsibility, temperance and facts of the case. It also appears that the Court has adopted an accused-centric view of the problem in mitigating the criminal responsibility of young-adults. While this verdict has touched upon an area of importance, it has further muddled the distinction in criminal liability between a juvenile and a young-adult for heinous crimes.
In a densely populated country such as India, it would not be possible to indiscriminately dilute criminal responsibility for young-adults. There must be a balanced effort toward reformative accommodation of such offenders. Young-adults may be segregated as per their maturity and placed in prisons which are conducive to their growth. They can to be allowed to effectively pursue their higher education and other vocational activities. The young age of the offenders (18-25) leaves sufficient room for reform and rehabilitation that such offenders may be reintroduced to society as positive elements.
It is counterintuitive to treat young-adults forbearingly and juvenile offenders harshly. In the present case, the Court has inadvisably advocated for treatment of young-adults as juveniles. The intention behind such a pronouncement, however, may be better realized in the classification of young-adults as a separate class of offenders. Such classification can be accompanied by the formulation of a bespoke policy for reformative justice for young-adults. In light of reducing preventable crimes, the Indian State may also conceive the attribution of criminal responsibility to parents and guardians of juveniles/minors. Such a move will better reallocate criminal responsibility within the spectrum of young offenders. The aim of the justice system should be to optimize the treatment of criminal offenders in a way that promotes the interests of persons who are open to reform.