The criminal jurisprudence of India is reformative in nature wherein the offender is given a fair opportunity to rehabilitate and get back to society. However, certain offences are very grave in nature which shook the conscience of the society and the person committing the same became a threat to the public at large. Thus, keeping in mind the gravity of offense and safety of the people, the court sometimes pronounces the punishment of “Life imprisonment” with the objective of protecting the social fabric of the society and inducing fear in the mind of other prospective offenders. In India, approx 55.8% of the total convicts are undergoing the punishment of life imprisonment.
In this article, we will explore the meaning of life imprisonment, its objective and its duration. Further, we will also delve deep into the discretionary power of various authorities to remit the sentence and the factors behind such remission.
Meaning of Life Imprisonment
The word “Life Imprisonment” consists of two words namely life and imprisonment. Section 45 of IPC defines “life” as the entire life of the human being and the term imprisonment means taking away the freedom of an individual and putting him behind the bars. So, collectively life imprisonment implies the entire life of a person in jail. The punishment of life imprisonment is provided under Section 53 of the Indian Penal code,1860.
Offenses Punishable with Life Imprisonment
The Indian Penal Code,1860 provides for a total of 34 offenses in which the punishment of life imprisonment can be awarded to the accused. Some core offenses are as follows –
- Section 121 – It deals with the offense of waging war against the government of India. The punishment is life imprisonment or death sentence.
- Section 122 – This section punishes an individual with life imprisonment if he makes an illegal usage of armoury weapons or without the due permission of the government.
- Section 132 – This section deals with the offense of abatement of mutiny. The word mutiny means the rebellion by the soldier or the army officers. This offense is also punishable with life imprisonment and a death sentence.
- Section 194 – This section provides for the punishment of life imprisonment if some false and fabricated evidence is presented before a court of law.
- Section 232 – This section deals with the counterfeiting of Indian coins. If any person knowingly indulges in any such activity then he may be subject to the punishment of life imprisonment.
- Section 302 – This is the most renowned section in the IPC. It deals with the offense of murder wherein the accused may be subject to the death penalty or life imprisonment.
- Section 314 – As per this section, if a person forcefully tries to do the miscarriage of a woman which led to her death, then the accused will be liable for the punishment of life imprisonment.
- Section 396 – This section deals with murder in dacoity.
The objective of Life imprisonment
It is clear from the aforesaid provisions that life imprisonment is generally awarded in only heinous and grave offenses. So, the punishment of life imprisonment has a three-fold objective which is as follows –
The first objective of this punishment is deterrence. The word deterrence in criminal jurisprudence means that idea or theory which states that the threat of punishment will prevent or reduce the possibility of crime in society. Further, it also ensures that the offender doesn’t repeat such a crime in the near future. It instils a sense of fear and the people start following the laws and the norms of the society.
The concept of rehabilitation or reformation is the identity of our criminal justice system from the ancient past. The word rehabilitation means changing or reforming the offender’s mental and social outlook. It is done when an accused accepts his past mistakes and wants to step ahead in his life. In this process, the jail authorities fully support him to transform himself.
Sometimes, if an offender shows great signs of improvement, then his tenure of punishment is shortened and he is released from prison beforehand.
It is generally witnessed that some crimes are very brutal in nature and the possibility of reformation in the offender is also very bleak. It is understood that if he is set free, then he can become a big threat to society at large. Thus, the punishment of life imprisonment ensures that he doesn’t indulge in the normal working environment of the society and impacts it.
Example – The Nirbhaya case was an unprecedented case in which the offenders committed extreme brutality on the girl. The court observed that these accused were a threat to society.
Duration of Life Imprisonment
As the term suggests, the duration of this imprisonment is the entire life of the offender. However, It is witnessed that there are some misconceptions in the minds of the people relating to the duration of this punishment. Some people opined that it is for 14 years, 20 years, 25 years, etc. However, it is not true and we will look upon the exact legal provisions pertaining to this.
The Hon’ble Supreme court In the case of The High Court of Jammu and Kashmir vs State of J&K & others clarified the scope of this punishment and stated that a person undergoing the sentence of life imprisonment is expected to remain in the prison for the rest of his life. However, this punishment is subject to any sort of remission given by the appropriate government. This last line opened a window of hope for the accused and it is the root of all the misconceptions.
Discretionary Remedies to Remit or Commute the Sentence of life imprisonment
As discussed above, there are some remedies available for a person to shorten his sentence. The word remission means that the duration of the sentence is reduced but its nature remains the same. On the other hand, in the commutation, the nature of the punishment is changed. However, it is important to note that these remedies are mainly discretionary in nature and the authorities are not bound to give them to the accused. The authorities may allow in case of some specific circumstances. Now, we will look at those remedies –
Constitutional Remedy Under Article 72 and 161 of the Constitution
The Constitution of India provides a good amount of sovereign power to the President and the Governor. As per Article 72 of the constitution, the President has the right to pardon, commute or remit the sentence. This power can be used by the president to commute or remit life imprisonment also. Similarly, Article 161 of the Constitution also vests the same power of remission and commutation to the governor of the state.
The Hon’ble Supreme Court in Maru Ram v Union of India held that the power of remission provided under Article 72 and 161 shall be put into use only after the advice of the government. He is not empowered to act in accordance with his own discretion exercised only on the advice and the advice given by the government is binding in nature and the president had to follow it.
Power of government under Section 432 and 433 of Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC)-
The convict who is sentenced to life imprisonment remains under the custody of the state government and it is the only authority that is responsible for his lifetime jail term. Thus, certain discretionary power is given to the state government under Section 432 and 433 of the CrPC. Section 432 of the CrPC allocates a special power to the government to remit the entire sentence of an accused wholly or in part. Furthermore, as per Section 433, the court is empowered to commute the entire sentence.
Procedure – The accused can make an application for remission or commutation to the appropriate government. Then, the government will take the opinion of the court that granted the sentence. After due deliberation, it may accept or reject the application. It is important to note that it is a purely executive action and no one can’t question the legality of the process.
Factors for Considering remission
- His code of conduct in the prison
- His health condition
- Socio-economic condition of his family.
Section 433 (A) – Restriction in power of Remission or commutation
The power to remit or commute the sentence is not absolute. The legislature made an amendment in 1978 and incorporated a new section 433(A).
As per this section, if a person is prosecuted under these 2 conditions, then he necessarily needs to suffer an imprisonment of 14 years and then ask for remission. The main objective of this section was to ensure that the offender doesn’t set free from the next day of his conviction.
These 2 conditions are as follows –
- He was convicted of an offense in which the death sentence is an alternative.
- The case in which first death penalty is awarded but later on it was converted into life imprisonment
In these 2 conditions, one must have served imprisonment of 14 years before asking for remission.
Constitutional Validity of Section 433(A) of CrPC
In the case of Maru Ram vs Union of India, the constitutional validity of section 433 (A) of the Criminal procedure code was challenged by stating that it violates the provision of Article 72 and 161 of the constitution of India. The court upholds its constitutionality by stating that this section doesn’t violate these provisions. The court specified that remedies under Article 72 and 161 are very different as they are constitutional remedies which will prevail irrespective of the provision. Thus, It can be inferred that the provision of section 433(A) will not impact the power of the president and governor to remit the sentence even in the case that involves the death sentence.
Remission of Sentence through Regulatory powers
In our criminal jurisprudence, some decision making power is given to the prison authorities under the jail manuals. They also possess the right to mitigate the hardship or remit the sentence on the ground of the conduct of the accused in the prison, his behaviour and his background. However, the scope of this remedy is very narrow and it can be overridden through the administrative action
Recent Amendments in the Arena of Remission
Recently, It was observed by the court that the remedy of remission and commutation was misused by the authorities. Many a time, a large number of prisoners were released on the occasion of a festival or on the birthday eve of a star politician by using the power under Section 432 of the Criminal Procedure Code. These offenders may repeat the same offense and become a threat to society.
So, the hon’ble supreme court in the case of Union of India vs Sriharan devised a new method of punishment in the case of grievous offenses. The court may state a minimum period of imprisonment which shall necessarily be followed before asking for the remedy of remission before the government or before the president.
For example – In that particular case, the accused was granted life imprisonment and the court held that the accused will undergo a minimum of 25 years of imprisonment before asking for the remedy of remission. Thus, the court can specify any number of periods of imprisonment (10, 15, 20, 25, etc) before which you can’t even apply for the remedy.
The concept of life imprisonment holds special importance in our criminal justice system. In simple terms, It means Imprisonment for the entire duration of life. However, Certain remedies are given to a person through which he can shorten the period of sentences. It is very important to note that these remedies were discretionary in nature and it totally depends upon the authorities to grant them or not. An individual can’t claim this remedy in a court of law. The constitutional remedy of remission is provided under Article 72 and 161 of the constitution and the legislative remedy is enshrined under Section 432 and 433 of the code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). However, in recent times the gravity of offense has increased alarmingly, thus the court starts intervening and it provides a minimum period of imprisonment before using these remedies prescribed by the law.