• The Law Gazette

Capital Punishment – A Reformation or Deterrence?

Capital punishment can also be called as the death penalty. Capital punishment has been a method of punishment for grave offences since the ancient times. Grave offences can be termed as the offences that are violent in nature. The criminal justice system around the world has used capital punishment as a legal punishment in order to set a deterrent example for future crimes. Specially, Indian criminal justice system has actively used this method of punishment for heinous crimes.


Capital punishment may be executed in many ways, some of which are, hanging by the neck, electrocution, shooting, beheading, lethal injection, etc.[i] The method of lethal injection is followed in countries like China and USA where the convicted person is injected with chemicals that will paralyze the body and slowly stop the heart beat within half an hour. Electrocution is another method of executing a criminal that is followed in some states of the USA. Spoiler alert! If you are a ‘cinephile’, then I would recommend you to watch the electric chair execution scene from the movie ‘The Green Mile’. Shooting is another method of execution of criminals where the prisoner is bound to a chair or a pole and shot dead. This method is followed in countries like China, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, North Korea, Somalia and Taiwan.

Beheading is the method where the prisoner’s head is cut off from his body using a sword. While beheading, the prisoner is usually blindfolded and handcuffed. This practice is followed in Saudi Arabia and some other Middle Eastern nations. The most popular method of capital punishment is hanging by the neck. Hanging is followed in most of the countries such as India, Afghanistan, Iran, Japan, Iraq, Malaysia, etc. About 45 minutes after the prisoner is hanged, a doctor confirms his death and if he is not dead, then he is hanged again till there is certain death. There have been hundreds of convicts that were executed in the independent India since 1947. Having discussed the most popular methods of capital punishment in the modern era, we have to question ourselves whether we as humans have a right to take the life of a fellow human being.


If you watch movies like ‘300’, ‘Troy’ and ‘The Passion of the Christ’, you’ll get a clear idea of how barbaric and inhumane the ancient punishments were. The king was the highest authority. He would punish the criminals in public in order to set a deterrent example for others. By time, with the growing population and humanitarian laws, there has been a centuries-long debate going on ‘for’ and ‘against’ capital punishment. In India, though the Vedas and other ancient scriptures do not directly favor capital punishment, the kings have interpreted the scriptures for their own benefit. In the ancient times, dissent to the king’s word was considered as the most heinous offence and hence the king, in order to throw out the dissenting sheep off the herd, used to award death penalty.


This theory favours instilling fear in the hearts of criminals by giving gruesome punishments to the criminals as deterrence for others. The deterrence theory was introduced by Italian criminologist, Cesare Beccaria and English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. They described deterrence as a tool to make the threat of the law credible. The main aim of the deterrence policy is to deter the criminals from committing any future crimes. The sole purpose of public punishments in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Iraq, etc is deterrence. The deterrence theory was believed to be effective till the end of the 18th century. In the 19th century, the world started to become a global village.

The world had access to the printing press and people were becoming more aware of news around the world. The world understood that the deterrence theory has failed miserably as the crimes continue to take place. Moreover, with growing population, people’s needs escalated and the crimes increased with direct proportion to the failure of the ruling authorities. Harsh punishments and public beheadings did not stop people from committing more crimes. In the 20th century, in the beginning of the era of industrialism and a sudden spike in world population, the criminal punishment system became more humane due to conventions and treaties to protect the prisoners’ interests.

World War II was a clear failure of the deterrence theory after the world had already witnessed World War I. The horrors of the devastation due to World War I did not stop Nazi Germany and its allies from initiating World War II. The most heinous of the crimes imaginable were committed during World War II. Later in the present 21st century, where we are moving towards a reformative criminal punishment strategy, there are a number of international conventions to protect criminals from inhumane punishments. However, the conventions do not stop the countries from pronouncing death penalty to a convict of a heinous crime.[ii]


Reformation theory talks about the purpose of criminal punishment. It says that the purpose of punishment is to reform criminals rather than instilling fear in their minds. This theory comes into picture when the deterrence theory fails. This is a concept that emerged from the biblical moral values of the Catholic Church that say ‘thou shalt not kill’ and ‘love your neighbour’. This method lost its value during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. In the 20th century, especially after the holocaust in the World War II and the anti-racist revolution in America, the world understood the concept of dignity and reformation.

The first step for reformation is to forgive. Under this theory, it is assumed that human is a moral being from nature and it is the state’s responsibility to reform the immoral mind of the criminal. Hence, in the present year 2020 where every nation is striving for global peace and security and civilization, it is important for India to head into the direction of reforming criminals rather than merely punishing them. The law is made not merely to punish but to improve the standards of living for the people of the state.[iii]


In the era of modern civilization, where the countries are aiming for world peace, do we have a right to end the life of a person? It is the state’s responsibility to protect innocents from criminals. “Under what circumstances is it moral for a group to do that which is not moral for a member of that group to do alone?” says Robert A. Heinlein, a famous science fiction author. ‘State’ denotes its people as a whole. When one single member from the state is not allowed to kill a person, then how moral is it for the state to kill a person by citing legal punishment? This jurisprudence is not hard to understand. Capital punishment denotes vengeance, revenge, retribution – tit for tat!

If the purpose of law was tit for tat, then all murder convicts would be awarded death penalty instead of long term jail sentences and life imprisonment. The world looks up to India as a role model, being a Democracy with around 1366 million citizens. Hence, it is high time for India and other nations to do away with death penalty and adapt to the reformation strategy instead of deterrence. Hence we can conclude that capital punishment is neither a reformative nor a deterrent strategy to curb crime. As it is the state’s responsibility to better the lifestyle of its citizens, it is better for a society to reform instead of punishing the criminals in the most inhumane way. One strong argument for abolishing death penalty would be ‘What if the court finds out that the criminal who is executed was actually innocent? Can we bring a dead person back to life?’ The answer is ‘NO’.

ENDNOTES [i] Katie Young, Death Penalty: Methods of Execution used Around the World, (Aug. 06, 2020, 2:07 PM), https://www.amnesty.org.au/death-penalty-methods-of-execution-used-around-the-world/. [ii] Deterrence – A Historical Perspective, (Aug. 06, 2020, 2:13 PM), https://law.jrank.org/pages/956/Deterrence-historical-perspective.html. [iii] Arnold S. Kaufman, The Reform Theory of Punishment, The University of Chicago Press, 49, 50 (1960).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR This blog has been authored by A. MD. Faizan, who is a 4th Year B.A., LL.B. (Hons.) student at Damodaram Sanjivayya National Law University, Visakhapatnam.