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Capital Punishment: The time to abolish it?

Capital Punishment: The time to abolish it?

By Byomakesh Kumar Singh

Capital punishment, popularly known as death penalty, is basically a government sanctioned practice, in which the state puts a person to death as a punishment for a crime. The sentence that is given in such a manner is called ‘death sentence’ and the act of carrying out that sentence is called ‘execution’. Crimes for which death sentence is awarded are called ‘capital offences’.

As of now, 56 countries have retained capital punishment, 103 countries have completely abolished it for all crimes, 6 have abolished it for ordinary crimes and 30 are abolitionist by practice.[1]

The debate of capital punishment is a matter of controversy in various countries including India as well. As of now, capital punishment in India is given for seven crimes. They are: murder, dacoity coupled with murder, war against the state, false evidence which results in capital punishment of an innocent person, instigating a minor or an insane person to commit suicide, and leaking out secrets to other countries. However, four types of persons are exempted from capital punishment. They are: (i) children below 15 years of age, (ii) pregnant women, (iii) mentally deranged persons, (iv) persons above 70 years of age. Also, the president is given the power to grant pardon to persons who have been awarded capital punishment.[2]

What we can conclude is that in the last two-three decades, the number of persons actually executed has sharply come down. But even then, the debate of capital punishment is unending and is highly controversial. Both retentionists and abolitionists have different point of views

The retributive theory of eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth is not always accepted in a civilised and advanced society.

Furthermore, the argument to deter people to commit a crime via the fear of capital punishment is also not based on hard evidence. Three methods can be used to determine the deterrent effect of death penalty. First, by comparing the homicide rates in countries which have abolished capital punishment with the countries who have retain it; second by comparing homicide rates in the countries which have abolished the capital punishment and after its abolition; third by comparing homicide rates in a state/country before abolition, during abolition and after the reintroduction of capital punishment( which happened for instance in Travancore State in India or in Italy which abolished capital punishment in 1890, reintroduced the same in 1930 and abolished it again in 1947). We will definitely find variations in homicide rates. For instance, in the United States, homicide rates in states which have abolished the capital punishment is 30 to 50 percent higher than those which have capital punishment(Sutherland, 1956:292). In Travancore, the number of murders reduced during the abolition period(between 1944 and 1950) but however increased when it was reintroduced, with the numbers going from 159 in 1950 to 170 in 1952. Italy showed a similar pattern between 1930 and 1947. Sweden and Norway which abolished capital punishment have homicide rates about one-half as high as England which had retained it till 1969. In Australia too, the homicide rate was higher after abolition than before abolition.[3] Hence, the difference in these rates of homicides is due to other factors and not just death penalty. The composition of population of a state/country and the culture which the people follow is of much more significance than the abolition or presence of capital punishment. The above data justifies the fact that death penalty does not always prove to have a deterrent effect. There is no denying the fact that human behaviour is influenced via fear but it is equally true that all individuals don’t think of death penalty before committing a murder. In India, it has been estimated that about three-fourths of the murders are emotional and only one-fourth are premeditated and pre-planned. Selling(1932:12) stated, “Death penalty can never be made deterrent. Its very life seems to depend on its rarity and therefore on its ineffectiveness as a deterrent.”

It has also been argued that crime is not a result of personality deficiencies but is caused by unfavourable environment and interaction of various factors. Hence, a long imprisonment is a considered a better alternative for abolitionists.

Retentionists argue that for improving the conditions and living standards of jail and giving long imprisonment might need a huge amount of money. The counter to this by abolitionists is that it can be improved by spending a significant amount of money and not too much. Furthermore, is it logical and sane to link economy with hanging human beings? Is it civilised and proper to argue that it would be cheaper to kill mentally and physically ill persons than to treat them, and hence we should hang such persons. Also, the introduction of wage system in the prisons can help prisoners to earn money and support their families.

Many a times due to the defects of the judicial system, many a times an innocent person is hanged. It is hence unfair. Capital punishment has a negative effect in the criminal justice system. Abolition of death penalty might improve the situation of criminal justice system since judges take a lot of time in deciding cases and determining whether a person must be given capital punishment or not.

Cesare Beccaria on Capital Punishment

Cesare Beccaria, who was born in Milan, Italy, is remembered for his famous work on “Crime and Punishment”(1764), which basically critiqued the oppressive and brutal criminal justice system of his time. He is often said to be the one who presented the sustained critiques of death penalty. His core argument was that capital punishment does not deter criminals, rather a long term imprisonment creates a long lasting impact on the minds of the criminals and spectators. Furthermore, what death penalty does is that it reduces people’s sensitivity to human suffering, hence it has a kind of harmful effect on the society. He accepts the fact that death capital punishment is practiced everywhere and it would be hard to break that custom; however, he feels that the collective voices of the critics of the capital punishment scattered around the world will influence the political rulers.

What right, I ask, do people have to cut the throats of their fellow creatures?[4] It is definitely not tthe right on which the sovereignty and the laws are founded. Tha laws are only the sum of the smallest portions of the private liberty of each individual, and represent the general will which is the aggregate of that individual. No one has certainly given others the right to take one’s life.

However, there can be one justification for capital punishment and when the life of a person can be taken away. This is when the person is deprived of his liberty and yet has adequate and sufficient power and connections to endanger the security of the nation. However, even this is would be only done if and only if there are high chances of a nation losing its liberty or on the verge of losing it, or in the times of absolute anarchy, when the disorders hold the place of laws themselves. Hence, a citizen cannot be deprived of his life when the state  is in a reign of peace, or is properly fortified against its enemies or any other similar circumstances.

Furthermore, it not the intenseness of the pain but its continuance which has the greatest effect on the mind. Our sensibility is strongly affected by weak and repeated impressions, rather than by violent and momentary impulse. It is the power of habit which is universal over every sentinent being. It is only by habit that we learn to talk, to walk and to satisfy our needs. In the same way, the ideas of morality are stamped on our minds by repeated impressions. The death of a criminal is terrible but only a momentary spectacle, and hence  less effective in deterring others, than the continued example of a person dprived of his liberty and condemned. “If I commit such a crime, I shall be reduced to that miserable condition for the rest of my life”, says the spectator to himself.[5] This is a powerful preventive than the fear of death itself.

Hence, to conclude, despite the arguments of retentionists, the paper concludes on the note that capital punishment must be abolished, since everybody has a right to live under Article 21 and the criminals deserve a chance to be reformed so that they can be used as worthy assets for the development of the society.

The argument that death penalty serves as a deterrent is also not a true one. In 1988 a survey was conducted for the UN to determine the relation between the death penalty and homicide rates. This was then updated in 1996. It concluded:

“...research has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment. Such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming. The evidence as a whole still gives no positive support to the deterrent hypothesis.

The key to real and true deterrence is to increase the likelihood of detection, arrest and conviction.

The death penalty is a harsh punishment, but it is not harsh on crime.”[6]

-Amnesty International

Furthermore, the fear of capital punishment puts the life of victim at risk and many a times the innocent too are hanged. Also, the theory of retribution does not hold water anymore with the humanisation of society. What one can conclude is that the arguments of abolitionists outweigh the arguments of retentionists.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment

[2] Criminology, Ram Ahuja,  Rawat Pubns (1 January 2000)

[3] Ibid 2.

[4] Crime and Punishment, Cessare Beccaria(1764), tr. Edward D. Ingraham, Ch. 28.

[5] https://www.utm.edu/staff/jfieser/class/300/9-cap-pun.htm accessed on 26 January 2019.

[6] http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/capitalpunishment/against_1.shtml accessed on 27 January 2019.

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