Consecutive prison terms for those convicted of more than one offence in a single trial are infrequent in India. When those who have attracted great public odium by the enormity of their crimes are found guilty, the judges are seen to have the option of awarding sentences that are ‘consecutive’, to be undergone one after another as opposed to concurrently, where the longest jail term subsumes the shorter ones. On rare occasions, for example in the case of self-proclaimed godman Premananda in Tamil Nadu, two life sentences have been ordered to run consecutively. The Supreme Court has now provided clarity on the question of whether two or more sentences of life imprisonment can be made to run one after another. It is basically irrational and anomalous, says the Constitution Bench. As life imprisonment is for the remainder of one’s life, unless ended by remission or commutation, multiple life terms should be counted concurrently. Accordingly, judgments that run contrary to this principle have been overruled. Consecutive sentences are still permissible if one is a fixed term and the other is one of life, provided the term sentence is completed first and the life sentence begins later.
Unbelievably lengthy prison sentences are not common in India, unlike in some jurisdictions in the West. However, most of these countries balance it with a robust system of probation or parole. On the other hand, the idea of releasing a prisoner under supervised probation after a part of the sentence has been served is still rare in India; both state and society expect convicts to be imprisoned for as long as possible. This highlights an issue that occasionally crops up in judicial discourse: the absence of sentencing guidelines in India. In theory, sentences can be deterrent, retributive, reformative or restorative. However, the present sentencing paradigm is judge-centric, leaving much to the court’s discretion. Some believe this may be right because no two offences, or even offenders, are likely to be the same. Circumstances (aggravating or mitigating), motive and nature of the crime are all taken into account by judges in sentencing. For heinous crimes, the ideas of deterrence and retribution inform judicial discretion, and hence the more popular verdicts are those that award condign punishment. Until sentencing guidelines are framed by the legislature or the superior judiciary, individual judges will have to carry the burden of awarding punishment that befits the crime. By holding that there shall be no consecutive life terms, the court has offered a ray of hope to even those locked away for life, even if it may not guarantee release. For, justice ultimately cannot be merely retributive.
Keywords: Supreme Court, convicts, jail term, consecutive jail term, Consecutive sentences
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