Hate on the streets as the law goes soft on terrorists

Moving to the gang rape in Hyderabad, there are already calls for tougher punishments and even "lynching" the rapists.

By Sandeep Gopalan

Published: Tue 3 Dec 2019, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 3 Dec 2019, 10:24 PM

Why was Usman Khan, the convicted terrorist who killed two people in London last week free to commit more crimes? How should we be punishing terrorists and rapists to keep society safe? These questions are roiling the United Kingdom, and India, which inherited its penal code from the UK, following the London Bridge terror attack and a horrific gang rape in Hyderabad.
Both crimes are examples of the tragic consequences wrought by soft-on-crime policies. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already vowed to "take steps to make sure that people are not released early when they commit... serious sexual, violent or terrorist offences." Johnson "absolutely deplored" the fact that Khan was out on the streets and wanted convicted terrorists to serve their full term in prison. In contrast, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn opposed making full terms mandatory saying "it depends on the circumstances, it depends on the sentence but crucially depends on what they've done in prison." Corbyn also noted that "prisons ought to be a place where people are put away because of major serious offences but also a place where rehabilitation takes place."
Khan served half of his sentence and was out on license. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that he should not have been released - his own lawyer expressed apprehension that Khan was still motivated by hate. In many ways, Khan's case illustrates the strength of the incapacitation theory of punishment - that violent criminals need to be deprived of the ability to commit crimes. Hence the need for permanent detentions for terrorists, and facilities such as Guantanamo Bay.
It is difficult to argue with Johnson's instinct - exposing society to the risk of terrorist acts committed by convicted terrorists given the likelihood of fatal consequences on a massive scale is unacceptable. Corbyn's vision of rehabilitation is a warm and fuzzy aspiration - there is no evidence that terrorists can be rehabilitated in prison. And assuming a terrorist has enlisted in deradicalization programs in prison and recanted, how do we trust that he is telling the truth? Given the tradeoffs between remaining steadfast in his terrorist ideology and pretend repudiation: serving years more in prison or securing freedom - any semi-rational terrorist has the incentives to lie. In fact, any rational terrorist will lie because it opens up the opportunity to commit additional terror attacks. Therefore, Johnson is right and terror convicts must not be released early. And those who represent particularly high risks of inflicting mass casualties probably need to be confined indefinitely.
Moving to the gang rape in Hyderabad, there are already calls for tougher punishments and even "lynching" the rapists. Many have demanded the death penalty, arguing that despite the lapse of seven years since the horrific Nirbhaya rape case in Delhi, the convicts have not been executed to deter other criminals.
Is the swift imposition of the death penalty the solution? Clearly, this rape and murder - planned and executed by barbarians over many hours with chilling premeditation - is a perfect match for the death penalty under the Indian Penal Code. Given the record of similar crimes and the brazen confidence of these offenders in selecting their target, burning the victim, using her vehicle, and
scouting locations, these rapists likely committed other such crimes previously. They do not evoke merciful sentiments.
In the Indian context, tough-on-crime laws and enhanced sentences alone will not be enough. The judicial system is broken and cases take too long to prosecute and convict. There are endless delays, appeals, and reviews. And judges tend to be soft - frequently reducing sentences for poor reasons. All this is in the rare case of conviction - all too often, pathetic prosecution, incompetent police work, corruption in evidence gathering, and suborned witnesses result in acquittals despite overwhelming belief in guilt.
Whether it is terrorism or rape, tougher punishments alone are never sufficient - they can only be imposed after the crime has been committed. We need preventative steps to protect society. In the case of terrorism, it means targeted deradicalization programs aimed at vulnerable populations. Coevally, counter-terror work must include informants from the community who trust law enforcement and report on likely attacks. It is likely that those close to the terrorist knew about his potential to commit his crime - interdicting him before the act is better than punishing him harshly after people have been killed or injured.
In the case of India, substantial improvements in policing are necessary. Minimum entry requirements must be raised to ensure that all policemen possess a degree. Elite units must be constituted with talent sourced from the best educational institutions - why doesn't law enforcement recruit IIT-ians and IIM graduates with competitive pay? The police must be trained in 21st century techniques, rid of corruption, and rewarded appropriately. And judges and lawyers need serious capability enhancement to prevent delays, function efficiently, and adhere to professional norms. Lawyers who corrupt witnesses, lie in court, and tamper with evidence must be debarred. Judges who enable delays and impose soft sentences must not be promoted.
Critically, the government must undertake a mass education campaign through the media and encourage families to educate their boys about rape. Equally, a fundamental social transformation in attitudes toward women is necessary for people who are transitioning from archaic social orders to modern society built upon women's equality. Confidential hotlines to report violence and apprehended violence against women must be established. Finally, women must be given basic safety training and empowered with self-defence techniques as a last resort.
It is easy for the likes of Corbyn and well-meaning judges to espouse soft-on-crime policies and rehabilitation - they don't bear the consequences of their decisions. When their guesses - and rehabilitation in the case of violent and sexual offenders is no more than a guess based on research - go wrong, it is some innocent victim who pays the price. This must end - innocent victims cannot be guinea pigs for virtue-signaling policies not supported by evidence.
- Dr Sandeep Gopalan is the Vice Chancellor of Piedmont International University, North Carolina, USA.

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