The basic issue relating to punishments under the existing criminal justice system in India is that this sentencing system lacks uniformity. The reason for this no uniform sentencing is that the Indian Penal Code defines certain offences and also prescribes punishments for the same. But in most of the provisions, the Code prescribes maximum punishment which hands over the discretion of deciding the term on the judiciary on case to case basis. Further, in India, neither the legislature nor the judiciary has issued a structured sentencing guideline which can be followed by the judges while prescribing punishments, so that the discretion shall be guided.
The Indian Penal Code under Section 53 provides for various punishments which can be imposed for the offences defined under the Code. To analyse the issue with respect to these punishments and also to determine what reform can be adopted it is a conducive way to consider every punishment individually.
Death penalty or capital punishment is the first form of punishment prescribed under Section 53. The criminal justice system in India believes in reformative justice and therefore, the imposition of the death penalty is unusual. The Courts with lack of structured sentencing guidelines have discussed the significance of capital punishments. This punishment is prescribed in the Code to offences which are considered as higher degree crimes which has a larger negative impact on the conscience of the public.
It is the discretion of the Court to impose a death sentence considering the severity and gravity of the offence. In the case of Bachchan Singh v. State of Punjab[i], the Supreme Court discussed the scope of imposing death penalty. The Court observed the synthesis between the protagonist’s approach of “an eye for an eye” which demands “a death for a death” and the humanist’s approach of “death in no case”. The balancing approach shall be “rarest of rare case formula”. This formula provides that the imposition of death penalty shall be made in rarest of rare cases by the Courts. Therefore, imprisonment shall be the rule and death penalty is an exception.
Further, the Apex Court discussed the relevance of death penalty in Indian Judicial System which is founded on humanitarian grounds and reformation of criminals as a rule[ii]. In the case of Machhi Singh v. State of Punjab[iii], the Supreme Court observed that the reason why the community as a whole does not endorse humanistic approach reflected in “death sentence in no case” doctrine is not far to seek. The humanistic approach is construed on the foundation of“reverence for life”. When a member of the community has violated this very foundation of the humanistic approach, the community may feel it is not bound by the principle of death in no case. Further, it has to be realised by everyone that whenever there is a threat to their safety endangering their lives, they will be protected in the protective arms of the rule of law enforced.
Therefore, the Court considered the plea of both the groups one which advocated for death penalty to deter crimes of severe nature and the other which advocated no death penalty as human rights of the criminals must also be revered and they should be given an opportunity to reform.
In Ramnaresh v. State of Chhattisgarh[iv],the Supreme Court furthered the discussion as to reforms that can be brought in awarding death penalty. The court held that any court competent to award death penalty must record special reasons while awarding death. The Courts while awarding death sentence should consider various factors like, nature of offence, the circumstances under which the offence has been committed, motive for the offence, provocative circumstances at the time of commission of offence, the possibility of convict to be reformed, adequacy of sentencing him to imprisonment for life and other circumstances.
Further, the Apex Court stressed upon recording special reasons in case of awarding death penalty because, awarding death penalty is against the basic rule of reformative justice which is the foundation of the criminal justice system. The Courts will be considering retributive and deterrent aspects of punishments while awarding death sentence. Therefore, special reasons as to this diversion from the basic rule must be explained by the Court.
Thus, complete reliance on the humanistic approach cannot be made and death penalty cannot be completely discarded. The fundamental reason as to consider awarding death penalty in rarest of rare cases is that, the community can never be given a feel of insecurity and where there exists direct threat endangering the peaceful life of members of the community, the Judiciary should protect the interests of the community by enforcing the rule of law.
Imprisonment can be in the form of life imprisonment where the offence is of grave nature and where death penalty needs to be used as an exception or imprisonment can be for a specified term which can be further in rigorous nature with hard labour or simple in nature. When it comes to issues relating to imprisonment the major issue that has to be discussed is need for prison reforms.
The Supreme Court in Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration[v], opened a way for prison reforms by considering the various questions raised by the petitioner which were directly in relation to the human rights of the prisoners. The Apex Court observed that the prisoners have enforceable liberties, devalued may be. But not demonetized. The basic rule is that if the fundamental freedoms are in jeopardy, then the prison powers must bow before the powers of the Judges and uplift the fundamental freedoms of the prisoners with certain reasonable restrictions. The prison management cannot be based on zoological strategies.
Further, the Court reiterated the aspect of ‘Legal Aid’ to the prisoners. Besides, the Supreme Court also suggested for implementation of positive experiments in re-humanization of the prisoners by conducting various prison festivals involving music, arts, games and useful work with wages. The Court stressed upon the prison laws which are now bad in shape need rehabilitation and prison staff who are soaked in the ideas of British raj need re-orientation.
These are the various reforms suggested by the Apex Court. Along with these reforms to the existing punishments, the criminal justice system is now moving ahead with the alternatives available to the punishments so as to reform the criminals and help in re-socialising them.
“The views of the authors are personal“
Frequently Asked Questions:
Can capital punishment be abolished?
The abolition of capital punishment is not completely accepted by the Courts because, the Courts must always consider a balanced approach between deterrent theory and reformative theory of sentencing. In cases involving heinous crimes, the court will have to look for deterrence as such crimes will be negatively impacting the secured feeling of the public at large. Therefore, completely doing away with capital punishment is not welcomed by the criminal justice system.
[i] AIR 1980 SC 898
[ii]Machhi Singh v. State of Punjab, AIR 1983 SC 957
[iii] AIR 1983 SC 957
[iv] AIR 2012 SC 1357
[v] AIR 1978 SC 1675