The myth of tough punishments and crime prevention
It has been somewhat fashionable in our country to demand tough punishments as a prevention tool for crimes that society abhors. In view of the apparently increasing rate of rape, some observers have demanded capital punishment for perpetrators of rape. Even responsible officials of the law enforcing agencies have demanded capital punishment for food adulteration. While both of these crimes are grave, these calls for tougher punishments for committing these crimes in some way misses the point. Rather surprisingly, at times some legal experts have also joined in this simplistic chorus of tougher punishments as an effective tool for the reduction of crimes. However, tougher punishments alone would have very little role to curb the rate of commission of a crime.
While no systemic study seems to be available, it may be safely said that the rate of violent crimes in Bangladesh (though not necessarily all type of crimes) is not too high by the global standard. The people’s perception of the relatively high rate of violent crimes may be attributable to two main reasons. One is the apprehension of people that punishment may not be meted out to the perpetrators and that perhaps gives impetus to the cry for tough punishments even for not so grave offences in some sort of desperation. Secondly, even common violent crimes get significant coverage in our mainstream media which creates an image that our society is violent-crime prone and tough punishment can play an important role in curbing them.
However, this write-up does not argue that punishment would never have any bearing on curbing crimes. Too lenient a punishment in the form of a slap on the wrist can well be a problem. In other words, the punishment has to have the prospect of inflicting some proportionate pain on the perpetrator of the crime. For instance, let us assume the food adulteration yields a business a gain of a few thousand takas per day. Let us also assume that the chance of that business being inspected by the magistrates or Directorate of National Consumer Rights Protection and being fined more than once or twice a year is virtually zero, and the maximum potential punishment is one hundred thousand takas. In this scenario, the business may have an incentive to engage in food adulteration than comply with the law. However, a proportionate punishment to render it a real punishment and tough punishment is not the same thing. While the former is necessary, the latter in itself can be virtually useless.
If the severity of punishment stood in a simple correlation with the rate of reduction of crime, then reducing the crime rate could have been a very simple task for the lawmakers. The lawmakers of every country could curb the rate of crimes by merely imposing severe punishments for a very long list of crimes. In the same manner, those countries which have abolished death penalty should witness a higher rate of incidents of crimes which does not seem to hold factually. In medieval England, even minor offences such as pick-pocketing carried severe punishments, and that did not have any real success in reducing the crime rate. Since the independence of Bangladesh, the list of crimes punishable by tough punishments has not diminished and it does not seem to have played any role in reducing the crime rate. Even rape which is not punishable by life imprisonment under the Penal Code,1860, now is punishable by life imprisonment under the Repression of Violence against Women and Children Act, 2000; but it does not seem to have played any role in reducing the number of rapes since the introduction of the latter Act. Thus, it is to argue that the lack of tough punishments has never been a problem in our criminal justice system.
Indeed, tough punishments for a long list of crimes may be a symptom of desperation. After all, the question of punishment only comes in when there is a conviction after a full-blown trial process. Tough punishment may at times make the judges more restrained in convicting an accused because the general principle of law is that the stronger punishment a charge carries, the more concrete the evidence should be. For prevention of crime, in addition to imposing proportionate punishment and ensuring conviction of the offenders, another critical point is addressing the root cause/s of the crime and taking specific measures to address them. To take one example, according to statistics available on the website of Acid Survivors Foundation (www.acidsurvivors.org/Statistics), the rate of acid attack in Bangladesh since 2010, has been on the wane. It is unsure that without taking stringent legal and administrative measures on reducing the easy accessibility of acids, the severe punishment as imposed by the Acid Attack Prevention Act, 2002 could have achieved this.
The writer is an Associate Professor, Department of Law, North South University.