Crime, punishment and media

There are two ways to look at punishment for a crime. One is retributive, which is directed at the perpetrator and the other is deterrent, which is aimed at the society as a whole. The former is vengeance exacted by the community for the wrongdoing and the latter is a threat message for those who may be inclined to commit similar misdemeanours in future.

In the past, a  vast array of techniques, tactics and stratagems have been employed by various forms of community and state power to convey the deterrent message of punishment to the public at large. Fear is the key to deterrence.

Measures like chaining to poles, confining in public stockades, burning at the stake, flogging in the village square, public amputation, staking heads of beheaded convicts on pikes for days, transporting convicts in tumbrils through the town for eventual public guillotining, keeping the bodies of hung criminals on the gibbet for days have all been par for the course.

Notice that all these methods  leverage the principle of “seeing is believing.” In other words, they broadcast the message or threat or warning to the general public that this is what awaits wrongdoers. In the olden days, public punishments had a carnival like atmosphere and were normally well attended events. But the advent and ascendancy of “human rights” for criminals has put paid to most of this public display of state  punishment in most countries barring a few.

In England, the 1864 Royal Commission on Capital Punishment sat for two years and concluded that there was no case for abolition of the death penalty but did recommend ending public executions. In the Spring of 1868, England and Scotland carried out their last public executions. 

The last person to be publicly executed in the United States was Rainey Bethea, a black
man who confessed to the rape and murder of a 70-year-old white woman. He was publicly hanged in Owensboro, Kentucky on August 14, 1936. Mistakes in performing the hanging and the surrounding media circus contributed to the end of public executions in the United States.

In most countries now, including India, punishment for criminals is away from the public gaze. There is only one way ordinary people get to know of such retribution and that is through the media. However, this dilutes the effect of the punishment on the public, since deterrence demands that justice should not only be done but should be seen to be done.

In India, we have the additional problem of  our creaking judicial system that inordinately delays the resolution of cases. It is not just a case of justice delayed being justice denied. Delays cause the original wrongdoing to be forgotten by the  public causing tremendous dilution of the impact of the judgement when it is finally delivered. There is virtually no deterrent effect of the sentence.

The media is the main messenger these days about crime and punishment. It has to, therefore, compensate for punishment no longer being meted out in the public glare and overcome the “memory loss” accompanying delayed justice.

Unfortunately, while our media is doing a fairly commendable job in reporting and publicising crime, it falls far short of the same alacrity and dynam-ism in throwing light on the completion of the case. A robb-ery or homicide or rape receives front page and prime time treatment but the sentencing at the end of the case is tucked away in an obscure corner of an inside page or is covered in a short byte at the tail end of the afternoon news on TV.

Treatment of crime
Most readers and viewers will not even be able to connect the judgment news with the import of the original crime. How can such treatment of crime and punishment promote deterrence? One can sympathise with the plight of editors who have to deal with a flood of news with very limited column space or broadcast time in their hands.

However, in the interests of society, they should bend over backwards to ensure that the proverbial short public memory is suitably jogged, at least when carrying reports about punishment for a serious crime. It is particularly important for  the media which is local to the crime scene and proximate to where the convicted hail from to play up the identity of the felons and the punishment given to them. 

Thus, if a report about the sentence for a rape on a minor is to be carried, let it get front page treatment naming and shaming the convicted person and carrying his or her photograph. The report should also include a box or sidebar recalling the nature of the crime.

In a bygone era, deterrence was achieved by parading the convicted person through the village or town and allowing the public to vilify him. Today, a more “civilised” society does not permit this but naming and shaming in the local media can be a substitute for achieving  this deterrence, at least in the areas closer to the crime scene.

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