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The Relationship Between Stringency Of Law And Deterrence In Crime

People are motivated to gain pleasure and avoid pain. When legal consequences of an act are severe and certain, it shall create fear in the mind of offenders and ultimately reduce illicit behaviour. The effect of a law is undoubtedly dependent on the citizen's knowledge of law, his analytical ability to differentiate between righteous and malicious act and also whether the law is suitable for the land in consideration. Law is of no use when the people are not aware of its existence. The Deterrent effect of a law is not only activated through judicial application but through its powerful implementation and most importantly how confidently people rely upon a law decides its deterrent effect.

Deterrent theory

Criminal deterrence idea is based on the belief that punishment imposed on the felon shall prevent him from committing further crimes and causes potential influence of threat of punishment for transgression in the public[i]. Crime can be effectively deterred when the criminal's cognizance of getting caught is strengthened.

The existence of a law with less privileges and more strict liability shall help effectively in combating crimes. The basic assumption of deterrent theory is that awarding punishment inculcates fear of doing illicit act and that the severity of punishment is directly proportional to inhibitory effect. A person before committing an act tends to look forward to its consequences and when punishment is in as a consequence crime is put off.

Punishment and deterrence

In Singapore caning for graffiti vandalism has effectively reduced the crime. Beheading, stoning, lashing are some punishments for criminal offence in Saudi Arabia which has resulted in low rate of theft and smuggling.
Deterrence through strict laws has been prevailing since ages. Pillory, stoning, construction into wall, mutilation, flogging, branding and being thrown under the leg of an elephant were certain forms of punishments for criminal offence that were awarded by the kings of past era.

Boiling, burning, whipping, hanging were frequently given to lawbreakers in the medieval period[ii]. Until the late twentieth century execution of malefactors were done in front of the public keeping in mind the idea that the certainty and severity of punishment would outweigh the temptation of the offender to commit crime. However there is no such proven evidence that deterrence increases when punishment increases.

The varieties and rate of crime has been constantly increasing through centuries. The effectiveness of deterrent punishments depends upon the people's legal persuasion and its conduct. Deterrence is not dependent on the severity of punishment rather more precisely related to the particular social system and their values. Below given are some details regarding the sentences pronounced in 2018 according to National crime records bureau (Full report in crime statistics India NCRB)

Distribution of Convicts undergoing various Period of Sentences at the end of 2018[iii] Period of sentence Conviction rate
1 Less than 6 Months 4.6%
2 6 Months - 1 Year 3.1%
3 1 Year – less than 2 Years 4.2%
4 2 – 4+ Years 5.3%
5 5 – 6+ Years 5.9%
6 7 – 9+ Years 7.8%
7 10 –13+ Years 15.1%
8 Life imprisonment 53.7%
9 Capital punishment 0.3%
  • The crime rate in India has been constantly increasing when we look at the statistics, from 367.5 in 2014 to 374.1 in 2015 and 379.3 in 2016.
  • Crimes reported in 2016 showed an increase of 2.6% over 2015.
  • A total of 50,07,044 cognizable crimes comprising 30,62,579 Indian Penal Code (IPC) crimes and 19,44,465 Special & Local Laws (SLL) crimes were registered in 2017, showing an increase of 3.6% in registration of cases over 2016 (48,31,515 cases) [iv].
  • A total of 50, 74,634 cognizable crimes comprising 31, 32,954 Indian Penal Code (IPC) crimes and 19, 41,680 Special & Local Laws (SLL) crimes were registered in 2018. Though it shows an increase of 1.3% in registration of cases over 2017 (50, 07,044 cases), however, crime rate per lakh population has come down from 388.6 in 2017 to 383.5 in 2018.

Determinants of a stringent law

The stringency of law depends upon various factors and merely severity. Law has kept evolving with time but has failed to combat crime. In the year 2013 the Indian penal code was amended and section 376A was inserted punishing the rapist with death penalty for causing persistent vegetative state or death of the victim. Thus it is evident that law had been made stringent with regard to rape after the after the terrifying Delhi gang rape case. However the accused were put to death 7 years later in 2020, it could also be said that justice was done when suffering was forgotten.

According to the violence against women in Crime statistics India report provided by the Nation crime records bureau 38,947 cases of rape were reported all over India in 2016 , 31,320 cases in 2018, an estimated 1.75 lakh cases of rape between 2014-18[v]. It is also to be noted that not all the rapists were punished. Strict laws exist but the snag here is the lag between the rate of justice served and crime committed. The deterrent effect of a law is influenced by various factors such as the value system existing in the society, the type of population, quantum and magnitude of punishment and most importantly knowledge of law.

Large scale scams, fraud, kidnapping, abduction, robbery, murder, rape, criminal attacks during election are committed by several gangs and individuals. These malicious activities are done by malefactors very confidently because those who witnessed the crime lack confidence and sense insecurity in reporting.

Some victims themselves fear defamatory comments and feel it a loss of pride to lodge a complaint. Moreover never ending adjournments by both side lawyers, several loop holes in the judicial system encourage and give confidence to the criminals outweighing the fear of consequences however severe it may be. Especially in cases of violence against women, murder and other criminal conspiracy victims refuse to confess fearing of retribution and defamation.

The above said are the factors that encourage criminals to overshadow the certainty of getting caught and fearless proceed in the criminal activity. Public execution in ancient days to punishments in schools even today are examples set to the viewers so that they shall visualize the severe consequences and stop themselves from committing any future crime. This was done with the idea that capital punishments awarded in public shall effectively reduce crime but however they have their own disadvantages and failed to combat offenders at large scale and some trials were inhuman.

Nowadays death penalty is offered only in rarest of the rare case[vi]', however incarceration does not prove to be an effective deterrent because research reports state that incapacitated prisoners tend mingle among themselves and improve their crime strategies and develop chain of contacts. Short term sentences pave path for habitual offenders, while long term imprisonment is an expensive way to deter crime by aging criminals who eventually grow out of criminal thoughts by virtue of age.

What influences criminal behaviour

There are various factors that cause criminal behaviour[vii].

Biological factors:

Criminologists and psychologists state that variance in chemical combinations in the brain, neuroendocrine, neurobiological functions can provoke criminal behaviour. Any damage caused Amygdala, the part of the brain associated with emotions can influence a person's criminal behaviour and may also eliminate fear of punishment.

Social factors:

Children who are raised up in bad situations and are exposed to criminal activities, when their parents or guardian themselves are involved in illicit activities, when the child is deprived from childhood joy and enjoyment and depressed, juveniles who face humiliation, children of convicts who are discriminated by the society, are prone to getting into criminal activities.

Substance abuse:

Due to peer group influence and lack of education people tend to get used to narcotics and drugs and lose control over themselves and get involved in criminal activity. Some poor due to bad influence get involved in criminal activity like theft, robbery and trafficking for their livelihood.

Likewise there exists many for criminal behaviour. Therefore a reformative and deterrent law must focus not only the crime committed but also deals the concerned criminal in such a way that the cause for his criminal behaviour.

However it is difficult to study every criminal in all cases and treat him appropriately, but the above said could be done in juvenile cases and minor criminal cases so that crimes committed by recidivists can be reduced to the maximum extent.

Suggestive reforms:

Justice must be made accessible even-handedly and non-discriminatory

  1. The very first step is to educate and publicize about the procedures of registering a complaint. Complaints should be made acceptable through e-mails also online portals and apps can be created for people to easily register complaints.
  2. This can help in a fair and transparent investigation and the affected party shall be able track the status of their filed complaint.
  3. FIR must be filed without delay for heinous crimes so that the criminals do not get a chance to destroy evidences. These steps shall help develop confidence in the general public which shall serve as fear to the wrong doer. Data regarding further proceedings and evidences shall be uploaded online, made traceable by the related party to avoid any erring activities by corrupt officials.
  4. Advocates should remember their obligation towards society and must not reduce litigation as a trade at the cost of basic ethics and values.
  5. Depending upon the complexity of the case a time bound mechanism must be set for appealing, hearing and deciding the case to ensure speedy justice and establish the supremacy of judiciary. Judgement must be pronounced while the public still remember the facts of the case.
  6. Only then shall it set an example and deter similar crimes in future.

From the data mentioned above it is evident neither incapacitation nor death penalty prove to be effective deterrents. Severe punishments do not make laws stringent. However fastening the loop holes and ensuring less concession to convicts proves stern nature of the law, such that the fear of consequences in the criminal's mind must be greater the malicious thoughts that provoke him. Knowledge about laws of the land and awareness about crimes prevailing in the country must be done to maximum extent such that the thoughts of humiliation and defamation must rise in the minds of the offenders and not the victims.

End Notes:
  1. Deterrence theory- Criminology
  3. Prison statistics India
  4. Crime in India statistics
  5. (violences against women)
  6. Rajendra Prasad Etc. Etc vs State Of Uttar Pradesh 1979 AIR 916, 1979 SCR (3) 78

Written by: Harini S

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