Granted life, but never free

If there is arbitrariness in applying the “rarest of rare” standard to select those who should be executed, it is even more difficult to pick those who should live but never be released from prison

The special court in Mumbai, which is slated to pronounce the quantum of punishment for 12 convicts in the Mumbai blasts case today, has a difficult task at hand. With the prosecution seeking the death penalty for eight of these convicts, and the defence making nuanced sentencing arguments, the court must choose between life imprisonment and the death sentence. While the Law Commission in its 262nd Report has laid bare the arbitrariness of the application of the “rarest of the rare” standard, it gives no guidance at all about the meaning of the statutory alternative of “life imprisonment”.

Life imprisonment is a highly contested concept. Judgment has been reserved by a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court recently in the case of Union of India v. V. Sriharan & Ors, where clarity is sought on whether the courts have the power to place a sentence beyond the pale of executive remission for select cases where life imprisonment seems too less a punishment but death, too harsh. For these cases, a sentence of life imprisonment is forever, and the prisoner has no prospect of leaving the prison alive. This is ironical given that he or she is spared the sentence of death.

A significant judicial statement

While the V. Sriharan case relates to the seven life convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, the fate of hundreds of life convicts across the country will be affected by the answers the Supreme Court gives on this sentencing question and other volatile questions, that are a combination of constitutional law and Centre-State politics. This judgment will be watched closely by the legal community as well as by prisoners, as it promises to be one of the most significant judicial statements on sentencing in India. The judgment may blur the separation between the judiciary, which hands out sentences soon after conviction, and the executive, which painstakingly calculates when a sentence has had its desired effect on the prisoner.

The question of a life sentence being for a person’s whole life was settled by the Supreme Court as long back as in 1961 in Gopal Godse’s case. In that case, however, as well as under the new Criminal Procedure Code, 1973, the executive continued to have discretionary powers to alter sentences. The 1973 Code was amended to mean that life imprisonment would mean at least 14 years and a constitutional challenge to it was negated by the Supreme Court. The court upheld it, recognising it to be a check on executive excesses in sentencing, but did so with the caveat that the powers of the Governors and President are unbridled by legislation or by judicial diktat, and enjoy constitutional sanctity. The courts have regarded this clemency power of these high constitutional authorities as being a “ray of hope” for the prisoner and have so far not blotted it out.

However, the way in which the Supreme Court has been interpreting and applying sentences for serious offences seems to present a mind-boggling array of alternatives. They range from death sentence in the “rarest of rare” cases, life imprisonment for a person’s “whole life”, consecutive life sentences, and life sentences without being considered for remission or commutation for 20 to 30 years. What is perhaps most disconcerting is that there appears to be no coherence in judicial pronouncements while deciding which formulations are most apposite in a particular case. Disturbing questions also arise as to who these select prisoners are who are condemned to spend their whole life in prison. If the courts have been accused of arbitrariness in applying the standard of “rarest of rare” to select those who should be executed, is it not infinitely more difficult to pick those who should live but never be released from prison, come what may? Would then our system be determining if some prisoners face the prospect of spending the “rest of their natural life” based upon, as realist legal theorists say, “what the judge had for breakfast”?

If the court in V. Sriharan does not place fetters on the executive discretion in carrying out sentences, it will be a vote of confidence for our prisons, recognising that indeed they are “correctional” institutions. Those who enter its doors as life convicts can hope, albeit after a long incarceration, to walk out again, suitably and sufficiently equipped, to be reintegrated into society.

While it is naive to assume that underpaid and overworked staff in overcrowded prisons will be able to bring about holistic reformation in the vilest and most despicable of prisoners, this would be the profile of a few prisoners only. To assume this for all prisoners is to let the exception dictate the rule. Most prisoners who come out at the wrong end of the judicial system after going through the multi-tiered appeals process seem to be the poorest and most marginalised in society. Correctional institutions present them with avenues of “reforming”, by earning an honest wage in jail factories or getting an education, all of which were not available to them outside jail.

However, if the court holds that for some life convicts there is no prospect of release, irrespective of any reformation they may have undergone, serious questions would be raised about our correctional institutions. The court would be pre-judging and completely ruling out the prospect of any reform on the date of the sentencing. It is worth pondering whether prisoners who are sent to prison for their whole life are incarcerated merely to compensate for the failure of the prison system to help prisoners meaningfully reintegrate into society.

International disapproval

Whole life sentences have been disapproved of internationally. In Germany, it has been held to attack the essence of human dignity. The European Court for Human Rights has declared such sentences as illegal if they do not provide the prisoner a right of consideration for early release. Namibia has ruled that such sentences would amount to cruelty at state expense and reduce the prisoner to a “thing” rather than a “person”. A prisoner who has been in jail for over 20 years awaiting execution of his death sentence told me that if judges who hand out these long sentences could spend even a month in prison conditions, he would be surprised.

While questions of the sufficiency of punishment are usually not amenable to easy resolution, the unenviable task of sentencing falls upon the shoulders of the judiciary, as it has in the 7/11 blasts case. In performing this task, however, it would do well to remember the words of Oscar Wilde: “Every saint has a past and every sinner a future”.

(Nishant Gokhale is an Associate with the Centre on the Death Penalty at the National Law University, Delhi.)

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