Should we kill death?

Akshita Manocha Words of Freedom Leave a Comment

Is the unavoidable politicisation of the execution of death sentence a good enough reason to abolish death sentence?

In the last Saturday Poll, we had posed the question whether politicization of the execution of death sentence is a good enough reason to ban death penalty. 85% of the 41 poll takers said “no”. Clearly, most people that this sample represents are of the opinion that putting some criminals to death is so important that unequal treatment of criminals in the form of political interference is an acceptable price. Those who are of the opposite view, may be because they are fundamentally opposed to death penalty, are a minority but still a significant 15% of the sample. So we are presenting here a brief analysis of the possible reasons for this contrary point of view.

Punishment for an offense is different in different countries and different religions depending upon the particular legal system’s or religion’s theory of punishment. Historically, punishments have sought to achieve some or all of the following four purposes: correction, deterrence, incapacitation and retribution. Correction is sought on the basis that circumstances push people to committing unlawful acts and that every body deserves a second chance. This is the reason that most prisons today provide inmates with the opportunity to learn new skills and knowledge, which could help them start life in a new, more favourable set of circumstances when their prison term ends.

Deterrence seeks to discourage people who might be tempted to commit an offence through the threat of a harsh consequence. Incapacitation is harsher in that it seeks to physically restrain the offender from repeating the offence.

However, retribution, unlike correction, deterrence and incapacitation, is not about limiting the frequency of an offence. It is a retaliatory measure sought as justice to the victim of a crime. Of these four purposes, death penalty seeks to achieve deterrence, incapacitation and retribution. But does it? And what is the price we pay for it?

First, deterrence is now believed to be more a matter of certainty of punishment than quantum of punishment. Combined with the fact that death penalty is awarded only in the rarest of rare cases, it does not serve this purpose. Second, there are other ways of restricting a person from repeating a crime than by condemning him to death. For instance, he or she can be kept in prison till they die a natural death. This will be a safeguard against judicial murders that are committed when courts come to a wrong conclusion. So the only possible justification for death penalty today is retribution. That is, death penalty seeks to mitigate the sense of loss suffered by a victim by killing the offender.

If this purpose is not achieved, then there is no justification for retaining in our statute books a possibility for murder by the state. And politicization of the administration of death penalty, by substituting electoral calculations for justice to the victim, has indeed defeated this purpose.

  – Akshita Manocha
Research Associate, Centre for Justice @ India Institute

The poll referred to in the first paragraph is the Saturday Poll posted on our social media on 22nd February,2014.