In conversation with members of a Juvenile Justice Board in Maharashtra
1. How long have you been working as a Principal magistrate? How many cases does your JJB hear in a day approximately? Describe how cases are handled on a regular basis.
I’ve been working as Principal magistrate (PM) for 1.5 years now. I started here back in June 2015. I work here 3 days a week i.e the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) and the remaining 3 days I work at the criminal court. My previous stint was at the criminal court in Nasik, Maharashtra, while this is my first stint with the JJB. This particular JJB looks at 2 districts in Maharashtra, covering 124 police stations. As per the mandate, the JJB is to comprise 4 members- one PM, 2 social workers, and counsellor.
So on an average, we look at 40-50 cases a day. That’s almost 1500 cases a month. These are a combination of new cases and some pending cases that get carried on over months, based on the gravity of the offense. From pre-recording statements, sharing evidence, summoning witnesses and listening to the child, each case follows protocol. Approximately 30-40% of the cases get disposed off immediately. Again, this depends on the offense. In relation to petty and serious offenses like small thefts we always give the child an option to confess their mistake. If they do, we let them go and if they don’t the case proceedings continue. However, we always make a child and his parents/guardians aware of the consequences if he/she decides to confess. Based on the offense we do a follow up, provide counselling etc to ensure that the child doesn’t reoffend. For juveniles who committ heinous crimes, the proceedings are more stringent. Last years amendment to the law, puts responsibility on the JJB to determine in the case of a juvenile (16 years and above) who has committed a heinous crime, to decipher whether the juvenile should or should not be put through the adult criminal system, puts a great amount of onus on the system to deal with each case closely.
2. Has your JJB transferred any child to the adult criminal justice system as per the amendment in the JJA 2015? If yes, can you please explain the process that was involved in ascertaining if the child should be tried in the JJB or transferred to an adult court?
What do you think are the challenges to the preliminary assessment in cases of heinous offences?
In my stint of the last year and a half, till date we have not transferred a single case to the adult justice system. So far, there have been 10 cases of children between 16-18 years who committed heinous crimes whom the JJB considered needed to be put through the preliminary assessment test; this test, conducted at the JJ hospital involves psychiatric testing that helps determine the maturity and development of a child’s brain, helping in the evaluation of whether a child should be treated as a juvenile or an adult. While the tests of these 10 juveniles have been done, we are in the process of analysing the reports to take a final decision with regard to their trial. Currently, these children are out on interim bail, and their proceedings shall continue after we receive the report. The challenges are greatly linked to the delay in receiving reports, thus delaying the overall timeline for the final judgement. Another delay in process also happens as the state of Maharashtra has only 2 special homes- one in Matunga (Mumbai) and the other in Pune. Once the inquiry is over and the JJB finds the child guilty of the crime, he is sent to one of these special homes.
3. JJA 2015 says that police has to produce all cases before the JJB irrespective of the severity of case in terms of punishment, and if the child is apprehended or not. In this it is a departure from the previous act, which gave the police discretion to dispose of cases at the Thana level. How do you see this change? Do you think this will help in prevention-reaching out to the vulnerable children and stopping them to commit more serious offences?
This change is definitely good. It is primarily beneficial in terms of rehabilitation of juveniles in conflict with law; also the primary purpose of an effective juvenile justice system. A first time juvenile offender should not be let off at the Police level, rather, should be brought to the JJB as their interaction with the JJB follows a child-friendly approach which is also extremely critical to ensure that a child doesn’t reoffend. We are able to explain the outcome of reoffense to a child in a manner that makes sense to a child and provides potential for change, therefore curbing its reoccurence, which is not done while dealing directly with the police. Though there is a provision of a child welfare officer in every Police thana and it is assumed that they are trained in JJA and how to approach children in a child friendly manner as per the provisions of the JJA, they have their limitations when it comes to rehabilitation and follow-up. This is primarily the responsibility of the child protection system and that’s why it is important that the child should come under the purview of the system.
4. Analysis of data on children in conflict with law highlights that most often these children come from economically backward homes and have either not attended school or are drop outs, with many not even reaching or finishing secondary education. What does your experience as a PM tells you?
I would say that 90% of cases of children in conflict with law are represented by children from economically backward sections of society and 10% are from better off families. The offenses they commit are sometimes indicative of their circumstances too. For example, recently a boy from the 12th standard from a good school and family was acting out and indulging in violent behaviour. He was categorised as an anger management case and required counselling and cognitive treatment. A lot of the children from privileged backgrounds get into trouble for their rash behaviour, but these cases often get closed because of their influential circumstances.
5. The JJA lays emphasis on the practice of child friendly approach. Can you explain what child friendly approach translates to during a child’s contact with the JJB?
The child-friendly approach includes various stages. First, when the child is brought to the JJB he is made to sit (not stand). Second, general questions are asked about where he comes from, his background, his parents, which school he goes to, if not, why he doesn’t attend school, in addition to asking him what the problem is, scolding him for doing something wrong and trying to understand the issue from his perspective. Third, no one is in uniform. Neither the PM, advocate, social worker, lawyer, police or any other staff who will deal with the child. This is to ensure that a child doesn’t feel like he is in a court. Additionally, he/she is always accompanied by a female police. Fourth, more details on the case are sought and gathered from the child and his parents/guardians. Fifth, in the evidence court the child sits with his parents/ guardians, where there is no witness box or dias. Finally, the trial, enquiry and all other proceedings are in the same place, to ensure the child is comfortable.
6. The JJA lays down the procedure in relation to the production of children before the JJB and the time taken for disposal of a case. But can you please speak about the process from the first production of the child in the JJB till the time of final hearing? What happens in between?
Disposal of a case must happen within 6 months, however, in some cases it is not possible to meet that deadline due to hurdles along the way. As mentioned earlier, a lot of the cases are disposed off immediately for petty and serious offenses if the child confesses, otherwise the proceedings take on different stages, as applicable to heinous crimes too. So the process is as follows. 1) Production: The child is produced at the JJB and he is asked questions and what and how things happened etc 2) Bail: A bail application is considered based on the case 3) Plea-recording: If the child pleads guilty he is let off, if not we start finding more evidence 4) Evidence: This is used to cross question all those involved in the case 5) Statement: The child is allowed to speak in his favour and explain his situation and why and how it happened 6) Final argument: Looking at and understanding both sides of the case 7) Judgement/Order: What the final decision is 8) Hearing: If the offense is proved, then a hearing about what the child has to say (after listening to both sides) and what his punishment is – a fine, admonition, advice, community service, transfer to a service home or even group counselling 9) Follow up: Supervision from an NGO 10) Report: A report on the changes in the child, and a tracking of the progress made.
7. Our limited experience tells us that the child is at times not given a chance to speak in the JJB especially in cases of petty offences. Also, while he/she may be present during the hearing, he/she is not aware about the proceedings as it happens unless he is explained about it which is usually after the decision is taken. How do you ensure child participation during the hearings?
Well, in cases of petty offenses we always inform the child that if they plead guilty, the case will be disposed off, and we inform them of the other outcomes if they choose otherwise. Additionally, we always allow the child to decide what they want to do…noone is forced to confess. We ensure that every child is informed and speaks his side during the proceedings.
8. How often do you get cases of repeated offenders? In your opinion what contributes to recidivism and what changes can be done in the system to address it?
Approximately 20%- 30% are reoffenders. These mainly comprise theft, robbery and aggressive behaviour including hurting someone, injury etc. A lot of children come from underprivileged backgrounds and often parents are busy making two ends meet and therefore can’t focus on their children. Therefore, parenting is one of the largest contributors to recidivism. Parents don’t have adequate time and knowledge to oversee and guide their children. We feel the government should incorporate something like a day care centre which can be of assistance when children are growing up. Society too needs to play a key role. Children get into bad company and then starts the downward spiral. When a child has been caught for a petty offense, he is always suspected when something else happens. This way children get labeled and keep coming in as repeat offenders.
9. Girls have been a largely invisible population in the discourse on juvenile justice in India. From your experiences, can you please speak about the nature of offences for which girls are produced before the JJB.
Not every district has a CCO for girls. What about your district? What are the difficulties that you face in this regard?
Our experience with girls in conflict with law shows that they are almost negligible in comparison to boys. This JJB at a given time deals with cases that comprise only 4-5% cases of girls. Girls are generally produced before the JJB for offenses like domestic violence (498), substance abuse and drugs, stealing mobiles or jewellery (379), and different thefts. Mainly those girls who don’t have parents or have step parents become aggressive and act out. Under heinous offenses some girls help by providing other girls for sexual favours/ trafficking, murder in case of self defense (Article 302), becoming part of gangs and assisting in murders too. Today, there are 2 sisters in the observation home for a murder case.
10. Do you believe that every child in conflict with law is also a child in need of care and protection?
Does the JJB work with the CWC in some cases? Can you give examples of the nature of such cases? Do you think there is a need of greater collaboration between both? What can be done to promote it?
We do believe in a collaborative effort between the CWC and JJB to resolve cases of juveniles in conflict with law. However, we look at each case individually and act accordingly. When a case comes to us, we look at the intention and reason for the child to have committed a crime. If a child’s circumstances and vulnerabilities drives the child into committing petty offences, we consider transferring the case to CWC.
11. CCI have an important role in the rehabilitation and transformation of children in conflict with law. However, the situation of CCIs across country is not very encouraging. What do you think can be done to make CCI a place for reformation and healing for children?
That is a fact which cannot be denied. It needs to start with increasing sensitivity. There are currently no funds, no human resources or avenues for capacity building, no staff or infrastructure
Photo Credits : Nipa Bhansali
Words By : Leher