Our brain has an obsession for quantifying reality that often leads us to create concepts that are counter-productive as they fail to represent reality in an appropriate way.
Age is one such time-related fallacy that we live with because we are comfortable only when we make things measurable. Our obsession for quantification is so great that we have forgotten that age is just a number. We have attached extremely important attributes to this number as if it is a true representative of our state. Recent lowering of legal age for criminal prosecution is yet another example of this problem.
Human body is a biological system that does not recognize passage of time with the accuracy, hence it fails to become adult dot on 18th birthday or become schooling-worthy on the very day one turns 5. But, out of our love for quantifying time, we prefer the numerical age over biological age. The solution that our collective sentiments forced our parliament to deliver in Nirbhaya case is one more example the same phenomenon that offers yet another number as a definition of adulthood. This faulty enactment suggests that we need to find a better solution to deal with this issue, and for that we need to understand the concept of mens rea (guilty mind) that is central to this problem.
Law considers an act to be a crime only when it is an act of person aware of the consequences of his/her action. Those with no control over their actions; such as children, insane people or those under control of others are rightfully saved from punishment because of what law calls absence of mens rea (guilty mind).
The problem starts when judgment about presence of mens rea shifts from discretion of a human being to a number (age). As seen in Nirbhaya’s case, this can grant unjust protection to a very evident criminal mind well aware of his crimes just because age is in his favour. So, even though we are well aware of the fact that age of person is not a true representation of his ability to be aware of the result of his act, we allow justice to be compromised purely because we succumb to the need of quantification.
As jurisprudence needs to evolve in a way that it provides better justice, we have to find a better way to resolve this issue than depend on a mere number and that can be done by looking closely at mens rea.
The problem can be solved by adding two dimensions to judicial system i.e. human judgment and biological cues. A human judge would always be a better judge of criminal intent and awareness than an arbitrary number; hence, India must look at jury based system to deliver justice in crimes like rape and murder.
We also need to consider biological cues to judge adulthood, especially in sex related crime like rape, as ability to commit rape is actually a great test of adulthood. Hence, combining biological cue with human judgment of mens rea could be the most appropriate way to deliver justice in such cases.
Another dimension of the juvenile crime issue is confusion between processes of judiciary and police action. It is important to note that abuse of juvenile under investigation is a matter of great concern but that is in the context of police action. Hence, a great way to deal with the problem is to grant all necessary protection using the age as a base while the juvenile is passing through police investigation, but the judiciary must be allowed to use its own wisdom in deciding the issue of adulthood.