You don’t have to go far in search of a Frank Caprio, the kind US judge who metes out judgments taking into account personal situations of the undertrials — we in Bihar have our own homegrown man of justice.
Meet Juvenile Justice Board judge Manvendra Mishra posted in the Biharsharif court of Nalanda district. In the past few months, he has acquitted over a dozen juvenile delinquents with unusual punishments in a bid to transform misguided teenagers and help them return to the social mainstream. Many of them were acquitted even without mild punishments with the judge considering their compulsions for their criminal acts.
Although Judge Mishra had delivered many such judgments in the past, what has drawn more praise was his move to acquit a child offender accused of snatching money.
The case dates back to April 2020 when the country was under a strict lockdown due to the pandemic, pertaining to a 16-year-old Rahul Kumar (name changed), who had snatched the purse of a woman shopper in Islampur block of Nalanda district. The Nalanda Police later caught him with the help of CCTV footage.
Rahul, a first-time offender, was produced before the juvenile court of Judge Mishra in Biharsharif town, where he admitted his offence and narrated the reason that compelled him to commit the crime.
He told the court that he has been taking care of his 49-year-old mother and a 13-year-old brother by working at roadside dhabas, restaurants, in farmlands of local villagers or someone’s home since the death of his father seven years back.
“I could work, but the lockdown left me jobless and I had no work to feed my family. My mother and brother had not eaten for days. So I snatched the woman’s purse to buy food for my starving kin,” the boy was quoted as telling the court.
As per the law, the boy would have been punished with lodging in the remand home, also known as a reform or correction centre, for about two years for the crime. Instead, the judge not only acquitted him but also directed the district authorities to provide food to the family, construct pucca houses under the Indira Awas Yojana and also provide his family the benefits of government schemes.
The boy had lost his job during the Covid-induced lockdown which had caused severe financial troubles to millions of poor families in Bihar.
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As such, no serious punishment is given to juveniles for crime; rather they are kept at a correctional centre for a certain period depending upon the nature of their crime. Normally, they are kept at correction centres for at least three years for murder, one-two years for rape, two years for kidnapping, robbery or snatching.
However, this juvenile justice board judge has been acquitting juvenile offenders by serving them unconventional punishments, such as cleaning the temple floors, teaching unprivileged children, launching ‘save girl campaigns’ or making the masses aware of their voting rights.
Take the case of another child offender from Nalanda district who was absolved of his charges for his dedication for study. The boy was accused of assaulting a co-villager. The judge also announced payment of his tution fees so that his study doesn’t get disrupted due to the severe financial crisis in the family.
The 16-year-old student of Class 10 had tried to intervene in a dispute his family had with some neighbours last year and was slapped with assault charges by the rival side. He told the court he used to sell eggs on the streets during lockdown to support his education but now that his board examination was getting closer, he could not afford to work as he was required to focus more on his studies.
He also wished to attend classes for English and Science at local coaching institutes for proper preparation, leaving the judge moved.
Similarly, a juvenile offender accused of kidnapping a girl for marriage was asked to launch campaign against mob lynching which has become a matter of serious concern in the state. In 2019, altogether 39 mob justice incidents were reported from Bihar in which 14 persons were killed and 45 were injured. This is in comparison to just six such incidents in 2000. In the current year, two incidents of mob lynching have been reported so far.