When talking of punishment for any crime we do not feel the need to think of the ‘reasons’ or ‘motives’ we as a society have for meting out the punishment. Yet, it is these very reasons we need to reflect upon. Even if implicit it is the motives that determine what sort of laws a society has.

So let us take a look at various motives for punishment: 1) Correction (Rehabilitation): the offender in incarcerated in the expectation that he/she will see the wrong that he has done and reflect upon it, thus helping him correct his behaviour in the future. 2) Deterrence (preventive): there are two sub-types under this motive; one is what I call ‘personal preventive’ which basically means putting someone in jail to prevent him from committing any future crimes. Second is the ‘general preventive’ in which we hope that the example of those who have been convicted will serve as an example to others in society and help to deter any among them from committing crimes in the future. 3) Retributive: this motive can be best summarised in the phrase ‘he must pay for what he has done’, i.e., we would like to avenge the victim by punishing the criminal.

From the above, it can be seen clearly that the best of motives is correction, then deterrence and the basest is retributive, for it is simply vengeance albeit state-sponsored. Now if we take a look at any punishment we can see that it is generally a mixture of all these motives in greater or lesser degrees. For e.g.; a punishment of a few months would have a major motive — the correction of the criminal’s attitude, personal deterrence in a lesser degree, and almost no element of vengeance. Even life imprisonment has all these motives, admittedly with a very minor amount of corrective factor. The offender may never get out in society but still has a chance to reflect on his wrongdoing and repent.

Capital punishment is unique in that it has absolutely no chance of correction whatsoever. It is an irreversible form of personal deterrence, and an unnecessary one at that. Personal deterrence can be achieved equally effectively with life term. There is absolutely no proof that having capital punishment on the statute book has reduced crimes, so it is ineffective as a general deterrence method too. The only reason for according the death sentence instead of life imprisonment is the idea of revenge. We do not allow people to take revenge for themselves, not because they might get it wrong (i.e., punish the wrong person, etc.) but because we find revenge to be morally unpalatable. Yet, what justification can we then have to let the government perform the same action in our name?

Punishment for any given crime must depend on the nature of the crime committed. For example, the criminals in the recent gang rape case in Delhi do deserve the maximum punishment; there is no doubt about that. The crime they committed is almost the worst thing humans can do to fellow beings. It is human nature that such abhorrent crimes make us wish for the criminals to suffer, to accord them the severest punishment we can. There is nothing wrong with that.

The question is where do we draw the line on maximum punishment? If it is okay to take human life in the name of justice, why stop there? Why not public hanging or even torture? Allowing capital punishment is like walking on a dangerously slippery slope. There is a very thin line separating justice and state-sponsored murder. It is a line we must not cross.

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.” — J.R.R. Tolkien

(The writer’s email: sonam.b89@gmail.com)

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