Amid strident calls for stringent penalty for heinous crimes, the Supreme Court has ruled that quantum of punishment cannot be determined on the basis of necessity to combat social evils like dowry deaths and atrocities against women.

The apex court made it clear that punishment should be decided only on the basis of “crime and criminal test” by taking into account the nature of the offence and accused.

A bench of justices S.J. Mukhopadhaya and Ranjan Gogoi said there is “enormous discretion” vested in the courts in sentencing an offender and there is no norms or even guidelines governing this exercise.

“The necessity to combat the menace of demand for dowry or to prevent atrocities on women and social evils as well as the necessity to maintain the purity of social conscience cannot be determinative of the quantum of sentence inasmuch as the said parameters would be common to all offences under Section 304-B(dowry death) of the Penal Code.

“The above, therefore, cannot be elevated to the status of acceptable jurisprudential principles to act as a rational basis for awarding varying degrees of punishment on a case to case basis,” it said.

The bench said that there is no norm or even guidelines governing the exercise of the vast discretion in the matter of sentencing laid down in any law except perhaps Section 354(2) of Criminal Procedure Code which, interalia, requires the judgement of a court to state the reasons for sentence awarded.

“The attempt at evolution of a principle based sentencing policy as distinguished from a judge centric one was noted to have suffered some amount of derailment/erosion” the court said.

The apex court passed the order while hearing an appeal filed by Sunil Dutt Sharma who was convicted and sentenced by a trial court to life imprisonment in a dowry death case of his wife.

The court reduced the quantum of sentence to ten years jail term after noting that the convict was acquitted from the charges of murder and he had no criminal background.

“The accused also has a son who was an infant at the time of the occurrence. He has no previous record of crime. On a cumulative application of the principles that would be relevant to adjudge the crime and the criminal test, we are of the view that the present is not a case where the maximum punishment of life imprisonment ought to have been awarded to him,” the bench said.

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