Is there a viable alternative to the death penalty?

Source : SIFY
By : Nandini Krishnan
Last Updated: Fri, May 12, 2017 10:36 hrs

Since the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence to the four remaining convicts in the Delhi bus rape of December 16, 2012, there have been two categories of extreme reaction from the public – one is the cheerleading of the death penalty, and the other is disgust that such a punishment continues to exist.

Among those who believe the death penalty is wrong, there are three kinds – those who take issue with the arbitrariness with which a crime is deemed “rarest of rare”, those who worry about the innocent being punished with death, and those who believe the state should not have the right to take a life away.

Even as the media reports on the reactions of the convicts and the plans of their lawyers to file review petitions, I find myself unable to disagree with the death penalty in a case where the involvement of the culprits have been proven beyond all doubt, and where the crime is so horrendous one wonders whether we are not better off without the perpetrators walking the earth.

In an ideal world, there would be no crime.

In an ideal system, there would be such firm deterrence that no one would have the chance to repeat an offence.

I cannot convince myself that everyone is capable of reform, or that remorse – even if truly felt, and not simply shown – can last through one’s lifetime to the extent that one never repeats such extreme cruelty. How can one even tell whether the remorse was for having committed the crime, or for having got caught for it?

There are certain crimes the commission of which speak to the psyche of the perpetrator. The word “monster” is popularly used, to describe child molesters, serial killers, and others with a record of viciousness against those who have no defence. What is it in some people, we wonder, which allows them to inflict such pain on someone else?

We search for reasons that would allow us to treat them not as monsters, but as fellow human beings – was it their upbringing, perhaps? Were they beaten or molested or subjected to other forms of cruelty when they were helpless to defend themselves? Did they have the wrong role models growing up? Is it poverty which needs to be tackled? Is it the mindset that needs to be changed, so that they will realise no woman is “asking for it” unless she literally asks for it?

But we must acknowledge that there are those who grow up in the same circumstances, hearing the same ideas, crippled by the same poverty, who do not allow these factors to define who they are or what they do.

There are only two possible explanations for the infliction of brutality – either it is a compulsion, or it is a choice.

If it is a compulsion, is the perpetrator capable of resisting the next opportunity that presents itself?

If it is a choice, what does that say about the perpetrator, about someone who derives pleasure or satiation from such a deed?

One may argue that for as long as someone is in prison for life, he presents no direct danger to the world outside, unless there is a prison break – which is not impossible.

But then, unless he is denied all human contact, is it not possible for him to influence others within the prison, who could then get out and present a bigger threat than before?

If the perpetrator is not put away for life – as the juvenile was not – would it not be possible for him to meet kindred spirits among other inmates and form a partnership when they are both outside?

It is often argued that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent, that there is no recognisable drop in a particular crime after the death penalty is awarded to a perpetrator. But then, it does deter that particular perpetrator from repeating the offence.

The only other foolproof way to deter him would be to lock him up in a room and throw away the key, with no access to anything except food and water, no walks for fresh air, no interaction with anyone else – a punishment arguably worse than death, with enough time for the criminal to feel remorse for what led him to banish himself from society and see out the rest of his life in a miserable hell-hole.



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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage.