Analysis of India’s flawed Juvenile Justice Labyrinth

Rishith P R**


Plot holes in movies often make them irrational or inconsistent, but when it comes to Indian statutes on Juvenile delinquents, some obvious ones deserve discussion and reflection. An equitable judicial framework should be unambiguous, reasonable, and uniform. Every exception should have a rational explanation behind it. The Juvenile Justice Act of 2015 (hereinafter, “JJ Act”) inconsistently lashes out punishments across different types of offences without sufficient reasoning.

juvenile delinquent can be defined as a person who has not reached the specific age as determined by a country’s legal framework and who commits socially unacceptable acts that violate specific laws. The Indian judicial system adheres to the doctrine of doli Incapaxpresuming that children are incapable of committing a criminal offence. Article 40 (3)(a) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, follows the same principle, which is ratified by India

In the past few decades, there have been a myriad of cases that spotlight the flaws in the current system. The Nirbhaya case is notable because one of the most brutal accused, declared to be 17 years and six months at the time of the offence, served only three years in custody. A three-year sentence is the maximum allowed under India’s juvenile justice laws at that time. Only after this particular case did a change in legislation allow for minors within a certain age range to be tried as adults. Recently, on the 19th May 2024, infamously known as the Pune Car Crash case,  a 17-and-half year-old teenager, allegedly in an inebriated state, drove a luxury car at high speed, causing the death of two people. The Bombay High Court held that the accused is entitled to the full benefit of the JJ Act and that the gravity of the offence has no relevance to whether the provisions of the Act can be extended to him or not.

This piece ponders whether the current system being employed is fair. It explores deficiencies in the Indian legal system, which relies on a flawed framework that inconsistently treats juvenile delinquents as adults only for specified crimes that lack any clear reasoning. It addresses loopholes and deficiencies in existing provisions and highlights recent and earlier major developments that exemplify the need for reform. 

This blog argues that the JJ Act should not discriminate between juveniles based on the nature of the offence. Instead, it suggests that all juveniles in a particular age group ought to be treated as adults with certain special considerations. 

Development of the current Juvenile Justice Act, 2015

After the Nirbhaya Rape case, the JJ Act, 2015 took over Juvenile Justice Act, 2000. The Juvenile Justice Act, 2000, tried one of the accused, who was a minor aged 17 at the time of the commission of the crime, as a juvenile offender. He was subsequently only sentenced to three years in a reformative center. The accused escaping with a very light sentence of 3 years merely because he was only a few months younger than 18 was against the public sentiment. The new JJ Act 2015 created classification of offences with the intention to allow minors in the age group of 16 – 18 to be tried as adults only for heinous crimes. While making such a classification, the JJ Act has taken due care and considered separate rehabilitative measures for children who committed heinous crimes within the age group of 16-18, as mentioned in Section 19 of the Act. Other rehabilitative measures for the rest are mentioned in Section 18 of the Act. 

Plot holes in the current framework

Although the current statutory framework in India provides a complex system for treating juvenile delinquents as adults under the JJ Act, provided that they meet specific requirements, the problem lies in the arbitrary and unsubstantiated treatment of juveniles as adults for only certain types of offences, while disregarding others.

Scope beyond the age of 18

While a numerical threshold of 18 for a child is arbitrary, it is perfectly reasonable to have such a threshold. Recent research shows that the part of the brain responsible for anticipating short and long-term consequences is not fully developed until the age of 25. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, under paragraph 32 of its General Comment No. 24, commends state parties that allow the application of the child justice system beyond persons aged 18. A similar system is followed under the German law, where Section 1 (2) of the Youth Courts Act defines “Juvenile” as someone under 18 but above 14 years of age and “young adult” as someone under 21 but above 18 years of age. Part III of the Act provides a separate set of punishments for young adults. According to Section 105 under Part III of the Youth Courts Act, a young adult can be punished similarly to provisions applicable to juveniles, mutatis mutandis, if the young adult is equivalent to a juvenile in terms of moral and intellectual development. The idea behind this system is to influence the behaviour of young adults in the future and reduce recidivism.

The JJ Act does not take into consideration the intellectual capacity of an individual beyond the age of 18 when there is a possibility that such an individual can be mentally equivalent to a juvenile. Additionally, the Youth Courts Act does not go beyond its scope unreasonably but reasonably extends its scope to include a new bracket of age group.

Discriminatory approach of the Act

Juveniles are treated as adults only for heinous crimes, as defined under Section 2(33) of the JJ Act. In contrast, petty and serious offences, as defined in Section 2(45) and Section 2(54), respectively, are disregarded. It is arguable that if a Juvenile is mentally competent, they should be fully held accountable for their crimes. However, under the JJ Act, a competent juvenile can escape full liability for serious or petty offences as they are not treated as adult for these types of offences. The rationale used under the Act to treat juveniles as adults is threefold: 

  1. They fall within the age range of 16 to 18
  2. They are competent to commit the crime which includes mental ability, physical ability, and the ability to understand the consequences and the circumstances as mentioned under Section 15 of the Act.
  3. The crime must come under the classification of heinous

The third rationale must have been implemented so as to avoid showing leniency towards crimes that are egregious in nature. Petty and serious offences must have been excluded as they are comparatively less severe. While petty offences are considerably less severe, offences like Section 304, which deals with punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder, is classified as a serious offence. Such an offence, while being less severe than some heinous offenses, should not be taken lightly as the victims are gravely affected. Ideally, such crimes should be added in addition to heinous crimes in the rationale so that individuals in the age range of 16 – 18 could be tried as adults for both these types of crimes.

A perfect example is the recent Pune car crash case, where a teenager, a few months shy of 18, allegedly drove a luxury car at high speed under the influence of alcohol and crashed into a motorcycle, causing the death of a man and a woman.  An FIR against the minor was registered under Sections 304, 304A, 279, 337, 338, 427 of the Indian Penal Code (herewith, “IPC”) along with 184, 119 and 177 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. Here, the most significant offence is Section 304, which provides punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder. This Section does not have a lower limit for punishment but sets an upper limit of 10 years. In the case of Shilpa Mittal v. State of NCT of Delhi, the court held that offences where the maximum sentence is more than seven years imprisonment, but no minimum sentence, shall be treated as a serious offence. This implies that Section 304 would be a serious but not a heinous offence. Therefore, there is little to no possibility that the alleged offender would be tried as an adult, as the JJ Act only tries juveniles as adults in heinous offences. The state has filed an application under Sections 15 and 18(3) of the JJ Act seeking to try the alleged offender as an adult. However, this is unlikely to be beneficial and will likely be rejected, as section 15 of the Act only tries juveniles as adults for heinous crimes, and none of the offences in the FIR can be classified as heinous. There is no rational reason for treating juveniles as adults only in cases of heinous crimes while ignoring serious and petty crimes.

There are two ways to approach this problem. The first way is to amend section 15 to include both heinous as well as serious offences, with the rest of the procedure being retained. This will reasonably broaden the punishment of Juveniles as adults in severe crimes following the same rigorous process of preliminary checking by a competent board, followed by a decision by Children’s court. The problem with this approach is that such a system gives much discretion to courts as the children’s court decides if Juveniles should be treated as adults and can be discriminatory. Therefore, the second way is to implement one standardized age below which children cannot be held responsible under criminal law without exception and consequently make it non-discriminatory throughout. 

MACR and the Age of Criminal Responsibility

MACR is the minimum age of criminal responsibility at which a person can be charged with a criminal offence. Two MACRs can exist with the presumption that a child who is at or above the lower age limit but below, the higher age limit lacks criminal responsibility unless sufficiently mature. In India, the lower age limit is seven years, as mentioned under Section 82 of the IPC. Additionally, there is another limit of 16 to try juvenile offenders as adults under Section 15 of the JJ Act. Therefore, 7 and 16 would be the two MACRs under Indian law.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Childaccording to paragraph 25 under their General Comment No. 24, advises having one MACR set at the age of 18. Some states have two minimum ages implemented. The committee believes that lower age limits are often created in response to public pressure rather than a rational understanding of children’s development and recommends abolishing such approaches. The JJ Act of 2015 was amended to treat certain children as adult offenders depending on the offence category and had a major influence by public pressure following the Nirbhaya case. The committee observes that such lower limits leave much to the discretion of the courts, resulting in discriminatory practices. A restructuring of laws with non-discriminatory full application of the child justice system to all persons below 18 years of age is recommended for countries by way of exceptions who treat certain children as adults.

The Swedish juvenile justice system follows a single MACR, which is set at 15 as per section 6 of the Swedish Penal Code. Individuals over 15 but under 21 are theoretically treated as adults but receive special treatment. This special treatment is in reference to certain sections under Lagen med sarskilda bestammelser om unga lagovertradare(Hereinafter LUL) and the Swedish Penal Code (hereinafter, BrB). They are:

  1. When a Crime is committed by an individual under 18, it may be waived under Sections 16 and 17 of LUL if the offender is subjected to some social service measure or if it is obvious that the crime was committed out of mischief or rashness.
  • Section 7 under chapter 29 of the Swedish Penal Code (hereinafter, BrB), directs milder punishments for individuals under 21. No person shall be sentenced to life imprisonment for a crime committed before attaining the age of 21. This would mean that the youth of the individual under 21 would be taken into account.  
  • According to Section 5 under Chapter 30 of the BrB, if a crime has been committed by a person who has not attained the age of 18, the court may impose imprisonment only if there are extraordinary reasons for the same. For an individual under 21, the court may impose imprisonment for the penal value of the crime or for other special reasons.
    • The seriousness of the crime is calculated as per provisions under Chapter 29 of the BrB. Section 2 of the same chapter states that aggravating circumstances shall be given special consideration in addition to what is applicable. Section 3 provides certain mitigating factors as well. Section 4 looks at the extent of any previous criminality if sufficient consideration cannot be given to appropriate circumstances. Section 5 offers reasonable considerations to circumstances that might warrant lesser punishment. 
  • According to Section 1a under Chapter 31 of the BrB, if an individual has committed a crime before attaining the age of 18 and if the consequent sanction is imprisonment under Chapter 30 as decided by the court, it shall instead decide on the sanction of closed juvenile care. This has been implemented to be in compliance with Art. 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

The Swedish juvenile justice system looks similar to the Indian system but differs in some important aspects. The Indian Juvenile Justice System has two MACRs: one at the age of 7, as mentioned under Section 82 of the IPC, and another at 16, as mentioned under the JJ Act, where children between the ages of 16 and 18 can be tried as adults. The Swedish system is non-discriminatory compared to the JJ Act. The JJ Act treats children aged 16-18 as adults only when the crime committed is heinous, while the Swedish system treats all children above the age of 15 and up to 21 as adults with special considerations regarding punishment. In other words, the JJ Act indiscriminately treats juveniles as adults only for heinous offences, without clear reasoning. On the other hand, the Swedish system does not distinguish between the types of offences and only focuses on the age of the individual. Once that is determined, the Swedish model focuses on giving special consideration to those individuals regardless of what the offence is.


The current Juvenile Justice Act, 2015, while making a good attempt to address the complexities of juvenile delinquency, has some gaps which need to be addressed. Implementing reforms having one standardized age for criminal responsibility and increasing the upper age limit should be looked into. The juvenile justice system of various countries must be looked into to understand the best policies, and compliance with the Convention on the Rights of Child must be ensured, as India ratified the same. A comprehensive review must be done of the current Act with the involvement of legal as well as psychological experts to develop a more equitable system.

**Rishith P R, a third-year BA LLB (Hons.) student at The National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi, focuses his academic pursuits on public policy research and is keen to make meaningful contributions in this field.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are of the author alone and do not necessarily align with the views of the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.