This article has been written by Sunayana Babar, pursuing a Certificate Course in Advanced Criminal Litigation & Trial Advocacy from LawSikho.
The expression ‘sentence’ in the legal context refers to the punishment awarded by the competent judicial authority to the person convicted of a criminal offence. Under Indian law, sentences generally inflicted are Death, Imprisonment for life, Simple or Rigorous Imprisonment and imposition of Fine. They are awarded a view to reform and rehabilitate the offenders and to have a deterrent effect on the public at large. The ‘Sentencing guidelines’ can be viewed as a mechanism or a system that provides for a fixed and determinate term of sentence for the same offences committed by the convicted offenders.
The present article aims to acknowledge and elucidate on some important questions concerning sentencing guidelines, its absolute need in the present criminal jurisprudence, their application and implication in the current system and a look at the other country’s sentencing guidelines.
Why is there a need for it?
The need for structured guidelines has been emphasized on numerous occasions. The Committee on Reforms of Criminal Justice system also known as “Malimath Committee”, a body established by the Ministry of Home Affairs had issued a report in March, 2003 that emphasized the need for structured sentencing guidelines in order to minimize uncertainty in awarding sentences.
In 2008, the Madhav Menon Committee had made similar observations regarding the need for a strict policy governing sentences awarded by the Trial Courts. Furthermore in 2010, the then Law Minister publicly stated that efforts were being made to establish a uniform sentencing policy in India in line with the US and UK Sentencing Guidelines.
The final stage of a criminal trial is awarding sentences to the convicted offenders. At this juncture, both the parties are heard by the Court concerning the term of sentence and accordingly, it is awarded. It is pertinent to note that our country does not have a uniform system of sentencing. Rather, it is at the discretion of Judges to grant any sentence based on the minimum or maximum punishments provided in the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
Such absolute discretion on behalf of the Courts often leads to arbitrary actions and can result in the abuse of power. There is no guidance whatsoever, in determining the appropriate sentence and has on multiple accounts lead to inconsistent sentences being passed by the Judiciary.
The Apex Court in Soman v. Kerala held that a number of principles need to be taken into account while exercising discretion in sentencing that includes proportionality, deterrence, and rehabilitation. As part of the proportionality analysis, mitigating and aggravating factors should also be considered.
How will sentencing guidelines be useful?
Since the existing law provides for statutory limits in awarding sentences i.e. minimum or maximum punishments, an uncertainty is bound to occur when the same offence is decided by two different courts for different offenders, one Judge may award minimum sentence and the other may award maximum sentence provided within the statutory limits. This leads to uncertainty in issuing sentences.
In order to curb the uncertainty, a guidance providing for a determinate sentence in similar cases pertaining to similar offences is essential. Such guidelines would aid in minimizing the uncertainty in the sentences awarded as the Judges will be bound to adhere to the guidelines and award sentences accordingly.
Consistent standard of sentencing
Having a strict and consistent guideline for sentencing shall reduce the stress on the trial courts and sentences shall be awarded without any anomalies in a strict and uniform manner. The Malimath Committee had advised to lay guidelines on sentencing under the chairmanship of a former judge of the Supreme Court or former Chief Justice of High Court along with members representing the prosecution, police, and social scientists experienced in criminal law.
The trial courts will be obligated to award clear, articulated sentences according to the guidelines established by either judiciary or legislature that shall result in providing a consistent standard of sentencing.
Uniformity and Predictability
In the absence of a structured sentencing policy, the Courts enjoy a wide discretion to award sentences. The Judges being an impartial authority, sometimes may award harsh or lenient punishment to the offenders while exercising discretion. Similar offenders who commit the same crimes shall be awarded the same sentences which shall further result in uniformity in awarding sentences. Furthermore, the strict guidelines can aid in predicting the resulting sentence.
Implication of sentencing guidelines
Principle of Proportionality
It is a well-known principle that the seriousness of an offence shall be directly proportional to the severity of the sentence pronounced. Currently, various factors including nature of the offence, previous criminal antecedents, etc. are considered while awarding punishments to the offender.
The Apex Court in Alister Anthony Pareira v. State of Maharashtra held sentencing as an important task and one of the prime objectives of the Criminal jurisprudence in imposition of an adequate, just and proportionate sentence commensurate with the nature and gravity of the crime and manner in which it is done.
Although there cannot be a strait-jacket formula for awarding sentences, a determinate sentence for every offender committing the similar offence is considered to be the aim of sentencing guidelines.
After the introduction of sentencing guidelines in the criminal law, the Trial Courts shall be obligated to refer to the sentencing guidelines and shall accordingly, award punishments to the offenders whilst giving a detailed and a reasoned order or judgment regarding the determinate sentence. This process itself is bound to bring transparency in the proceedings concerning the final stage of trial i.e. sentencing.
Sentencing serves the purpose of providing punitive measures along with reform and rehabilitation to the offenders and also increases the public understanding relating to sentencing. The public sometimes is known to take law in their hands that unnecessarily causes distress in the justice delivery system. A strict and fixed sentencing policy is bound to revive the long-lost confidence of the public in the justice delivery system and in the Judiciary.
Other country’s sentencing guidelines
United States Federal Sentencing Guidelines
- The US Federal Sentencing guidelines have been in operation since 1987 throughout the USA. These guidelines set out a uniform policy for sentencing individuals and organizations convicted of felonies and misdemeanors in US Federal Courts.
- The Guidelines are applicable only to more serious offences like misdemeanors and felonies.
- The Guidelines were originally mandatory for the Judges of Federal Courts however, after the US Supreme Court’s decision in US v. Booker it found the federal guidelines as unconstitutional but upheld them to be advisory only.
UK’s Sentencing Guidelines
- The UK Sentencing Guidelines have been in operation since 2010 throughout England and Wales. It is mandatory for the courts in the UK to follow sentencing guidelines unless it is contrary in the interest of justice.
- The said guidelines lay down certain factors that the Crown and the Magistrate’s court should take into account that may affect the sentence. The Sentencing Council is an independent body that issues guidelines and promotes consistent approach to sentencing and also raises awareness of the same.
- The Coroners and Justice Act, 2009 gave rise to a reformed system of sentencing guidelines and have been in operation since. It established a Sentencing Council, a statutory body that produces guidelines pertaining to sentencing and monitors its implementation and effects.
The Judiciary has time and again laid out certain factors that shall aid in awarding sentences; however, in a country like India where offences are committed every second, the need of the hour is a strict guideline surrounding the sentencing policy that needs to be formulated. An ideal sentencing policy shall aim at penalizing the offender along with the intent to reform him and to have a deterrent effect on the general public and potential offenders at large.
- Soman vs. Kerela
- Alister Anthony Pareira v. State of Maharashtra
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