Death penalty – not a crime deterrent

The Saket court’s order to hang four accused in December 16 Delhi gang rape case has been welcomed by one and all. But, it poses the bigger question whether death penalty is a deterrent to crime or not.

The issue was hotly debated in Indian television studios on Friday night after the magistrate awarded death penalty to the accused, all below 30 years of age. Not even a single television channel provided a credible evidence to suggest that death penalty acts as a deterrent.

It is surprising that the issue was being debated in India on basis of research in the developed world with no relation to stark socio-economic conditions here. About 22% of Indians are poor, just 74% of Indians are literate and there is a widening economic gap between have and have-not’s in the country.

The government data shows that inequality in India is on rise despite economic growth.
The monthly expenditure of poorest 10% in rural India increased by 11.5% as compared to 38% increase for richest 10% between 2010-12. The monthly expenditure of poorest 10% in urban India increased by 16.4% as compared to 32% for richest 10% during same period.

The latest National Crime Records Bureau data shows that crime for money is on rise and most of the accused in these cases are from socially and economically backward sections of the society. “Poverty is a reason behind several heinous crimes,” said Kavita Srivastava, a Rajasthan based campaigner against death penalty.

The Supreme Court this week coined poverty a new mitigating factor to commute a convict’s death penalty into life imprisonment. “Poverty, socio-economic, psychic compulsions, undeserved adversities in life are thus some of the mitigating factors, in addition to those indicated in Bachan Singh and Machi Singh cases,” said a bench of justices SJ Mukhopadhaya and Kurian Joseph in the judgment.

The person was convicted for death by a Mumbai court for killing his family — wife and three children and two sons. The lone survivor of the attack for his girl presumed to be dead by him. The reason for the massacre was his inability in supporting them. One night, the accused, tailor by profession, took a pair of scissors and repeatedly stabbed his family members.

So vicious was the attack that the wife and two sons died without uttering a scream. His injured daughter asked him why he was hurting them. The man gave her a glass of water before trying to smoother her. Presuming her to be dead, he went straight to the police station and confessed.

The same logic may not apply in Delhi gang rape case if the hearing in the case reaches the Supreme Court because of gravity of the crime, inhuman act and media frenzy. But, there is no deniability of the fact that all the four accused came from economically and socially backward sections and were semi-literate. Can their background reduce their culpability to crime, is a question higher courts will have to answer.

A study by Asian Centre for Human Rights says that majority of convicts facing death penalty in non-terror related crimes were from the deprived sections. Rarely a person from richer or influential background has been award death penalty in India indicating the judicial bias. As a journalist I have seen rich inmates avail all luxuries in their jail cells whereas others have to live in almost filth.

Those who favour death penalty present research in its favour and those opposing have similar statistical argument. But, one reason definitely goes against death penalty is that if humans cannot save life they don’t have a right to take it.

More than vociferously supporting death penalty as home minister Sushilkumar Shinde did, the government should create socio-economic environment to reduce crime. It can be done by reducing gender inequality, making gender sensitivity part of school curriculum, having people friendly policing and by bridging income disparities.

Without taking these steps, the crimes of passion like Delhi gang rape will continue to happen irrespective of quantum of punishment — life imprisonment, death or anything else. Only short-cut to reduce crime is economic empowerment of the deprived.

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