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Should ‘scope of reformation’ of a rapist be considered before awarding him the death penalty?

The convict could very well put up a pretence of extreme regret to give judges the impression that he has reformed in order to avoid the death penalty. In such a scenario, it will be a gross injustice to the victim of his crimes.

As per reports, the Supreme Court has commuted the death sentence of a criminal convicted of rape and murder and reduced it to life imprisonment. The Supreme Court reportedly observed that the death sentence should be awarded only when there’s no scope for reformation.

There are several problems with such a reasoning. There is no objective criterion to determine the chances of reformation of a particular convict. More importantly, it isn’t clear why it should even be a concern. The purpose of conviction is not to guide the convict to a better path, its purpose is solely to impose punishment consistent with the severity of the crime committed. If the crime is severe enough to attract the death penalty, then it isn’t exactly clear why the scope for reformation should be taken into consideration.

There are certain ambiguities regarding the laws involving capital punishment in India. According to precedent, it is reserved for the rarest of rare cases. But an objective criterion for ‘rarest of rare’ is not defined. Under such circumstances, it often falls on the subjective interpretation of the case by the concerned judges.

The objective of punishment is not merely reformation, it is also deterrence for the convict and also those who may be inclined to commit the same crimes. We should not consider the scope of reformation for a rapist and a murderer since none exist for his victim. It isn’t clear why his right to life should be respected after he has violated the right to life of another human being.

The gist of the matter is, if the Indian Penal Code (IPC) states exactly which crimes deserve the death penalty, then our courts should only determine whether a person has committed those crimes and if he has, then the death penalty should be awarded as prescribed.

The Judiciary needs to base their judgments on solid grounds of fact. It needs to provide the evidence is considered to reach the conclusion that there was a scope of reformation for the convict. It then needs to answer if such a reformation would negate the crimes that he has committed in the past. These are matters of deep philosophical debates. It cannot be ruled aside by stating it as established fact.

The ‘scope of reformation’ argument only takes more power away from the legislature and accumulates in the hands of the Judiciary. Judicial activism has been a heated debate in recent times. Although high profile cases such as the Sabarimala verdict has attracted much attention, such little moves via which the Judiciary grabs power are often ignored although they pose a far bigger threat.

It is true that every crime needs to be dealt on a case by case basis. But it’s very difficult to imagine that a rapist and a murderer could ever reform himself. Indian Criminal Jurisprudence is believed to be based on a combination of deterrent and reformative theories of punishment. While it is understandable that a reformative approach is taken to petty crimes, it appears extreme naivete to apply the same to violent crimes.

One argument that is put forth in this regard is that every human life is valuable and efforts should be made to save every soul from corruption. It’s a very religious argument. But it can also be argued that human souls are not for us to save. From the Hindu perspective, every person needs to atone for his sins. The concept of reformation does not feature anywhere in this regard. In the Mahabharata, the Pandavas had to atone for their sins as well even though they were committed to upholding Dharma.

The convict could very well put up a pretence of extreme regret to give judges the impression that he has reformed in order to avoid the death penalty. In such a scenario, it will be a gross injustice to the victim of his crimes. Punishments are about justice as well and sometimes justice requires us to perform actions which are not entirely pleasant.

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K Bhattacharjee
Black Coffee Enthusiast. Post Graduate in Psychology. Bengali.

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