There is a concerted effort to plug procedural gaps in death penalty sentencing

News: Recently, the Supreme Court of India delivered a judgment in Manoj & others v. State of MP which attempted to reform the administration of the death penalty. The judgment is prominent in India’s criminal justice jurisprudence.

The SC’s Observations

It reflected the state of the death penalty in the country. It attempted to fix a broken sentencing system.

The framework of mitigating factors placed four decades in the Bachan Singh Case is not being followed.

What were the issues in death penalty sentencing since Bachan Singh Case?

The Supreme Court, the Law Commission of India, research scholars and civil society groups have acknowledged a judicial crisis in death penalty sentencing in India. It has been on account of unprincipled sentencing, arbitrariness and high levels of subjectivity. The death penalty sentencing has been, by and large, crime-centric.

The crisis prevailed despite requirements imposed on sentencing judges by the Supreme Court in Bachan Singh (1980).

What are the reasons for non-compliance to the Bachan Singh Framework?
There has been utter confusion across all levels of the judiciary on the requirements of this framework and its implementation.

The nature of the crime and its brutality has often dominated over the consideration of mitigating factors. The socioeconomic profile of death row prisoners has not been used as a mitigating factor into the courtroom.

There is now empirical evidence that a vast majority of India’s death row prisoners are extremely poor. They do not receive competent legal representation.

Till yet, the measures have not been taken to put in place a system to gather the information required for mitigating factors.

Manoj & others v. State of MP Judgement

The Judges must follow the laid down a framework to choose between life imprisonment and death sentence.

Sentencing Judges couldn’t impose the death penalty only on the basis of the crime or aggravating factor. They’ll give appropriate weight to both the aggravating factors related to crime and mitigating factors related to background of the accused, the personal circumstances, mental health and age of the accused, to ascertain if a case is fit for the death sentence. They have to determine if the option of life imprisonment was “unquestionably foreclosed”.

It has attempted to plug the procedural gap in gathering information related to mitigating factors. The judgment is clear that certain procedural thresholds must be met for sentencing to be fair.

The judgment recognised reformation as integral to the Indian criminal justice system, especially death penalty sentencing. The sentencing judges must establish that there is no probability of reformation of the accused.

The accused’s life, both pre-offence and post-offence in prison, are relevant. The courts have to call for reports from the probation officer as well as prison and independent mental health experts.

What will be the challenges to procedural coherence and integrity in the trial courts and the high courts?

Achieving meaningful compliance across all levels of the judiciary will be a significant challenge. The sentencing judges do not understand the need for this wide range of sentencing information.

In addition, translating these procedural reforms into substantive fairness in determining punishment will also be a challenge.

There will be a challenge in producing detailed and high-quality sentencing information to the courtrooms.

Way Forward

The Supreme Court will have to provide a rigorous normative basis for consideration of these factors.

The psychological studies ascertain that criminality cannot just be reduced to terrible decisions by individuals in the exercise of their free will. All our actions are a result of a complex web of biological, psychological, and social factors. Therefore, their understanding is important for discussions on criminality and punishment.

Source: The post is based on an article “There is a concerted effort to plug procedural gaps in death penalty sentencing” published in the Indian Express on 17th June 2022.

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