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Sentencing and Punishment Policy in India

Sentencing and Punishment Policy in India
- Aastha Sahay


There is an alarming increase in the rate of crimes all around the globe, and our nation is no exception. In view of this, there is no question about the fact that a just criminal justice system is required, and a very important aspect of Criminal Law is imposition of suitable, just and proportionate sentence. In India, the main legislations governing criminal law and the system of sentencing and punishment are the Indian Penal Code, 1860 ( hereafter referred to as the ‘IPC’), The Indian Evidence Act,1872 and The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 ( hereafter referred to as the CrPC ).

Keeping the topic of the blog in mind, it is important to distinguish between the terms ‘sentence’ and ‘punishment’. Though interconnected, they cannot be used interchangeably. ‘Sentences’ are statements in judgements which lay out what the punishment for a particular offence will be according to the law. When the same is put in action, and is operationalised, it would be called the ‘punishment’ Thus, it can be said that the sentence is the predecessor to the actual inflicting of punishment.


Before we go on to discuss the various kinds of sentences and punishments and policies thereof prevalent in India, it is important to understand what exactly a sentencing policy constitutes.  Every nation has different criminal justice systems. Some nations focus on the punishment that should be awarded to the offender, whereas some nations are more focused on the rehabilitation that can be offered to the perpetrators. The prime rationale thus adopted by a particular justice system would be its sentencing policy.

In India, there exists no set and strict sentencing policy. No such guidelines have been issued, although courts from time to time, recognizing the need for such a policy, have set out certain principles and factors that courts should take into consideration while deciding punishments. For example, in Soman vs. State of Kerela, emphasis was placed on principles such as deterrence, proportionality and rehabilitation.  

However, the Supreme Court despite laying out the abovementioned factors, recognised the absence of a policy:

“Giving punishment to the wrongdoer is at the heart of the criminal justice delivery, but in our country, it is the weakest part of the administration of criminal justice. There are no legislative or judicially laid down guidelines to assist the trial court in meting out the just punishment to the accused facing trial before it after he is held guilty of the charges.” 

Section 53, Chapter III of the IPC, lays down the various kinds of punishments that can eb bestowed by the courts for the various offences. They are listed as follows:
•Imprisonment for life
•Rigorous imprisonment or simple imprisonment
•Forfeiture of property

Every offence defined under the IPC has a minimum and a maximum penalty that can be awarded to it.


It is therefore, clear that whether a particular offence should be punished with the minimum or maximum penalty prescribed for it, or somewhere from between the gap, depends solely on the judge’s discretion. Section 354(1)(B) of the CrPC directs judges to record reasons behind awarding a particular sentence, and according to Section 354(3), whenever any sentence authorizes life imprisonment or death penalty, special reasons must be laid down.  Despite the above provisions, it is undisputable that the absence of a sentencing policy in India, leaves the judges and the judiciary with a lot of power.

Needless to say, not every judge has the same frame of mind and considerations while awarding sentences. A few general factors that all judges take into account would be the severity of an offence, the intention and the liability. However, the final sentence is majorly based on a judge’s personal experience, prejudice and considerations. A very important factor would be the competency of lawyers present on a particular day in front of a particular judge, who could sway the judges in their favour. Every case has different circumstances and factors, whether they aggravate the possible sentence that would could be decided, or mitigate it. This has also been recognized by the apex Court, which in the case of State of M.P. v. Bablu Natt, observed that:

“The principle governing imposition of punishment would depend upon the facts and circumstances of each case.”

The Ministry of Home Affairs, established the Malimath Committee, in 2000. This committee went on to emphasize on the discretionary power of the judges while deciding sentences. They too, felt the need to regulate such power and a uniform sentencing policy. It is not only the judges who posses this wide discretionary power. Section 360 and 361 of the IPC authorizes and governs release of convicts and offenders on the basis of their good conduct whilst imprisoned. Due to the absence of a sentencing policy and a set definition of ‘good conduct’, a convict’s release would depend on the discretion of his respective jail authorities. 

There exists immense discrepancy and disparity due to the absence of a uniform policy. Judges might impose different sentences on offenders being tried for the same offence. The judges are not entirely to blame here, because as mentioned earlier, every judge has their own considerations. Every judge has different standards and whether a particular factor is an aggravating or mitigating factor for a particular case. However, it leads to an imbalance in the criminal justice system as offenders spend unnecessary time being imprisoned. 


It is undisputable there is a dire need to curtail the increasing rate of crime in the society. Members of the legal fraternity; lawyers, advocates, judges and activists alike, work towards the same every single day. However, in this process, we cannot ignore the fundamental rights of the accused, whether its before, during or after the sentencing stage. A balance between the rights of citizens to a safe society and rights of the accused should be reached for the development of a uniform policy. It is imperative that both be taken into account, otherwise the resulting disparity would cause incorrigible cracks in the system.

While the discretionary power of the judges cannot be completely taken away, as we would be undermining the power of the judiciary in doing so, it is needed that we regulate it. Discrepancy in sentences leads to an imbalance, which is highly undesirable. In India itself, we read cases of convicts having spent majority of their lives in custody, with sentences falling just short of life imprisonment. While it would be wrong to criticize the judges for the same, a strict sentencing policy would ensure less such instances. 

Though the need for a sentencing policy has been recognized on various occasions, in judgements and various committees alike, little is being done to implement the same. The judiciary, have themselves stated that development of a strict sentencing policy would lead to an obstruction of justice. (State of Madhya Pradhesh v. Mehtab). However, the need of the hour is to look at the larger picture here, to improve the criminal justice system in our country and the development and implementation of a uniform sentencing policy is a major method by which the same can be achieved.



Soman vs. State of Kerela 2013 (11) SCC 382, Paragraph 13
State of M.P. vs. Bablu Natt, 2009 (2) SCC 272, Paragraph 13
State of Madhya Pradhesh vs. Mehtab 2015 (5) SCC 197, Paragraph 8


The Indian Penal Code, 1860, s. 53
The Indian Evidence Act, 1872 
The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, s. 354(1)(B), s. 354(3), 360, 360