Crime and correction

Punishment should evoke regret and reform the offender

By Asha Iyer Kumar (Issues)

Published: Sat 18 Apr 2015, 12:10 AM

Last updated: Thu 25 Jun 2015, 11:16 PM

In a week that saw India’s once celebrated IT idol and Satyam Computers founder, enter the prison barracks bearing an indelible blot of a fallen hero, my thoughts are hazily hovering over the subject of crime, punishment and their dubious correlation. Although by definition ‘crime’ might mean an offence culpable by law, I would like to take all ethical aberrations under the ambit of the present conversation.

The human race has always found reasons to err, tricked by its own self-defeating purposes and instigated by its inherent vices. When greed and envy along with their various corollaries lead man to misconduct, there is only one prescribed way to neutralise the behaviour. Punishment. But I have always wondered if punitive actions indeed achieve what they set out to do. Does retribution result in reparation of an innately deviant human nature? Is crime itself a result of a weak mind’s freaky impulse or is it a cunning design by a faulty character?

We have been recent witnesses to an utterly remorseless rapist to who neither his act nor the possibility of death seemed to be of consequence or concern. That even the gallows cannot inspire any dread or penitential sense in a human being is beyond my ken. One can only presume that certain types of moral decadence are outside the realm of sense and discernment. His lack of regret and indifference are probably indications of a fundamentally flawed character that manifested in repulsive ways and his background might have served as an able prop to it. What good will punitive measures serve in such instances is a moot question.

Perhaps, the case of hardcore criminals who have no sense of the right and the wrong is different from that of a suave gentleman of unarguable repute who fell prey to wanton greed, took to transgression and when the moment of truth arrived, confessed to it without skipping a punctuation mark. The man knew he was in the wrong and owned up. Today as he bides his time in isolation, he must be reflecting. He must be taking stock of his life, wondering why and where he had erred; if he could have circumscribed his hunger for wealth and limited his ambition. The core instinct that drove him to the reprehensible act might be universal and might put him in the same premises as defaulters of more heinous nature, but if his readiness to come clean is anything to go by, then in the years he will spend in the clink he will be reformed and cleansed.

The time out period will give him the leisure to know himself, and provide him with an insight to life beyond the power and pelf he might have at one point taken for granted. He will feel the hardness of the floor and relish the taste of modest meals. He will know the value of daily wage and learn to respect wealth. He will encounter life at close quarters, take lessons and make notes for his future. It will be an opportunity to know truth. One can only hope that his background will help him get back on track and he will walk out as a new human being. His sentencing will then have found its objective.

Whether it is a serious defaulter under law or an errant child, punishment should primarily serve two purposes – of evoking regret and correcting the offender, and to act as a deterrent to the rest. It loses meaning if it only churns out more odious feelings and bad behaviour. We are living in times when reprimanding one’s own child is getting tricky, for the fear of rebellious response and extreme acts of revolt. We are finding our own individual ways to discipline defaulters out there, more as an expression of our disapproval than to rectify mistakes. And regrettably, we are also witnessing punishment turning into a travesty, thanks to money and muscle.


Asha Iyer Kumar is a freelance writer based in Dubai 

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