The other day we had a heated discussion at home on whether death penalty should be abolished in India are not and as usual, I was the undecided one and my wife was pretty sure that it shouldn’t be. Her three main reasons for supporting the death penalty were:
- Why should we bother for people who have committed serious crimes against our society?
- Why should we waste taxpayers’ money on keeping them alive?
- What is the guarantee that they won’t commit the same crime when they are out of jail?
I was undecided from deterrence point of view first of all, and secondly I wouldn’t like to kill a person just to save taxpayers’ money especially when so much money is being wasted in different scams. Ideally we shouldn’t come to the level of the perpetrator: since he or she killed, so should we (but then, I might have different thoughts if the perpetrator has committed the crime directly against me or any of my family members).
Before proceeding I would like to reiterate that I’m not sure whether it should be abolished or not, so I am merely sharing here some of my thoughts on the issue, especially when it is being raked up again due to the delayed mercy petition of the revoking of Rajiv Gandhi’s killers’ death sentence. Predictably, there are already coming sounds from our ever-disquieted northern state regarding what would be the reaction of the general Indian public if the same sort of sentiment is shown towards Afzal Guru, another terrorist awaiting hanging.
So coming back to whether death penalty should be abolished or not. To answer this question, we first have to answer why death penalty?
Since time immemorial death penalty has been practiced all over the world, whether they live in advanced societies or in tribal areas. It is assumed that death is the ultimate punishment.
There are many societies, especially in the Islamic world, where physical mutilation is still practiced instead of death straightaway. For instance, they blind a person, amputate him or her, publicly flog him or her, and carry out stonings. In the civilized world, rightfully, such punishments are considered barbaric. We have just two options: jail the person for as long as possible (in India it is normally 14 years maximum) or kill him.
People who support the death penalty give the following reasons for it
- It gives a sense of closure to the victim/victims family/families
- It acts as a deterrence to the would-be heinous criminals
- It eliminates the chance of these people coming out and committing the same crime again
- They deserve what they are getting
Let us go through these points one by one.
The victims’ families need a closure
The family or the families do need a closure. Ideally it should happen with lots of counselling, group support and if possible, also through religion and spiritual guidance, but again, we don’t live in an ideal world. The victims’ families would think that the perpetrator is being easily let off just because he or she is a criminal and they are not. All of a sudden, he or she is a victim who needs to be protected from the families and it’s the families who need counselling and spiritual guidance. It might seem to be a total travesty.
I don’t exactly know how it happens in India but in many Western movies they show the family members of the victims attending the execution to witness the perpetrators dying in front of them. Considering the degree of agony the family members go through I think it is fair that they want the person to die in front of them.
The death sentence acts as a deterrence to would-be heinous criminals
Has there been any study done on how much deterrence death sentence creates? Heinous crimes (resulting in death penalty) might be of the following forms
- Cold-blooded meditated crime
- A crime of passion or lust that isn’t cold-blooded
- A crime by mistake
- A crime driven by an ideology or passion (honor killing or acts of terrorism)
The last death sentence in India was rewarded to Dhananjoy Chatterjee (see this Wikipedia link for why) in 2004 and before him it was 1995 when “Auto Shankar”, a serial killer responsible for multiple murders and rapes, was hanged. Both these criminals fit the “rarest of the rare” category mentioned in an 80s judgement. These were big news, but did they cause deterrence?
Not many people think so. How would death sentence cause deterrence?
It has to be regular (people shouldn’t think that, oh, since 1995 just 2 hangings have taken place so there is a fat chance of getting a death sentence or even after the sentence, there is a fat chance of actually dying through the noose). Besides, even if death sentence were a routine thing, 99% of criminals don’t think they will ever get caught. Most of the criminals wouldn’t commit a crime if they constantly thought of getting a death sentence if they are caught. Somewhere they know they can always escape, if ever they get caught. So death sentence would have been a deterrent if there was a real chance of getting it. Just imagine, even the Nithari killers have escaped death sentence so far, and if they can escape it, why cannot the others?
There is no chance of these people ever coming out of jail and committing the same crime again
In an ideal world this would happen because in an ideal world jail is supposed to reform you. Simply punishing someone doesn’t eliminate his or her criminal tendencies. Unless you really reform people there is a big chance that they are going to indulge in the same activities, more careful this time. These people might also exercise revenge on people who were responsible for getting them arrested. So by leaving them alive, you are not letting them lose to commit more such, or more severe crimes, you are also putting at risk people who were directly or indirectly responsible for their punishment. Remember “Cape Fear”? So unless people can be reformed, abolishing death sentence doesn’t make sense.
They deserve what they are getting
This is quite subjective because different people might have different views on what really that “deserving” means. It is same as some teachers preferring to cane their students and some are satisfied by just making them stand on their desks (they both think that the student deserves it).
Well, by writing down these points, it has helped me decide what I actually think about death penalty in India. Personally I don’t like it, but right now we don’t have an alternative. Especially because of the part that they might come out and carry out the same crime again, creating, needlessly and avoidably, more misery. I don’t believe in the argument that they should be killed to save taxpayers money though. Nonetheless, death sentence justifies if
- It is swift and more definitive and isn’t used politically
- More death sentences take place so that the would-be criminals think that there is a greater chance of getting a death sentence
- Justice system must be strong so that there is no escape from getting your due when you commit a crime
- The punishment is the same across economic, societal and religious classes