LIFE IMPRISONMENT – FOR LIFE?

INTRODUCTION :-

Indian Penal Code provides for six types of punishments for offences therein. [2] Life imprisonment (also known as a life sentence or life incarceration) is a sentence of imprisonment for a serious crime under which the convicted person is to remain in jail for the rest of his or her life. Life imprisonment, as distinct punishment for certain grave offences under the Indian Penal Code was authorized by law w.e.f. 1st January 1956 when the Code of Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, 1955 came into force. It was earlier known as transportation for life. There are in all fifty-one sections in the Indian Penal Code which provide punishment with imprisonment for life [3] . There is always a debate as to the exact duration of imprisonment of life. This article purports to analyse the law in India relating to life imprisonment through study of various statutes and case- laws prevalent in India.

TERM AS PER STATUTORY LAW :-

Various statutes in India dealing with criminal law have laid down provisions relating to life imprisonment. Some of the important provisions are as follows:

Indian Penal Code,1860 :

Section 55: Commutation of sentence of imprisonment for life

In every case in which sentence of [imprisonment] for life shall have been passed, [the appropriate Government] may, without the consent of the offender, commute the punishment for imprisonment of either description for a term not exceeding fourteen years.

Section 55, I.P.C. provides that when sentence of imprisonment for life has been passed, the appropriate Government may without the consent of the prisoner commute the punishment for imprisonment of either description for a term not exceeding fourteen years. This section empowers the appropriate Government to commute the sentence of imprisonment of life. Exercise of such right is at the discretion of the appropriate government. This section does not lay down that life imprisonment shall be an imprisonment for fourteen years and a prisoner is not to be automatically released after expiry of fourteen years of imprisonment. It is for the appropriate Government to commute the sentence and for this purpose Rules have been framed by the State Government.

Section 57 - Fractions of terms of punishment

In calculating fractions of terms of punishment, [imprisonment] for life shall be reckoned as equivalent to [imprisonment] for twenty years.

Section 57 of I.P.C. provides that in calculating fractions of terms of imprisonment, imprisonment for life shall be reckoned as equivalent to imprisonment for 20 years. Section 57 does not say that imprisonment for life shall be deemed to be transportation for 20 years. For all purposes, imprisonment for life must, prima facie, be treated as imprisonment for whole of the remaining period of the convicted person's natural life.

Code of Criminal Procedure :-

Section 432 - Power to suspend or remit sentences.

(1) When any person has been sentenced to punishment for an offence, the appropriate Government may, at any time, without conditions or upon any conditions that the person sentenced accepts, suspend the execution of his sentence or remit the whole or any part of the punishment to which he has been sentenced.

Section 433 - Power to commute sentence.

The appropriate Government may, without the consent of the person-sentenced commute -

A sentence of death, for any other punishment provided by the Indian Penal Code, 1860;

A sentence of imprisonment for life, for imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years or for fine;

A sentence of rigorous imprisonment for simple imprisonment for any term to which that person might have been sentenced, or sentenced, or for fine;

A sentence of simple imprisonment, for fine.

Section 433A:- Restriction on powers of remission or commutation in certain cases.

Notwithstanding anything contained in Section 432, where a sentence of imprisonment for life is imposed on conviction of a person for an offence for which death is one of the punishments provided by law or where a sentence of death imposed on a person has been commuted under Section 433 into one of imprisonment for life, such person shall not be released from prison unless he has served at least fourteen years of imprisonment.

The appropriate Government has power under Sections 432 and 433, Cr. P.C. to suspend or remit or commute the sentence while Section 433A of Cr. P.C. imposes restrictions on the powers of remission or commutation in certain cases.

Under Section 432 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, the appropriate Government has the power to remit the whole or any part of sentence to which the person is convicted. Under Section 433 of the Code, the appropriate Government has the power to commute the sentence of imprisonment for life to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen year or to a fine. Section 433A was enacted to deny premature release before completion of 14 years of actual incarceration to such convicts who stand convicted of a capital offence. The period of detention undergone by an accused as an under trial prisoner against the sentence of life imprisonment can be set-off only if the appropriate authority passes an order under Section 432 or Section 433 of the Code. In the absence of such an order passed, and apart from the provisions of the relevant Jail Manual, imprisonment for life would mean imprisonment for remainder of life.

TERM OF IMPRISONMENT FOR LIFE IN OTHER COUNTRIES:-

USA -

In the USA, life imprisonment generally continues till the prisoner dies. Sometimes life terms are given in sentences are disproportionate to the duration the prisoner is expected to live, for example, a 300-year sentence for multiple murders. In actuality, a life sentence does not always mean "imprisonment for life." Once a period of 10 years or more is over, the convict can be set out on parole.

MEXICO -

In Mexico, life imprisonment is an indeterminate sentence. Its term may range from 20 years up to a maximum of 40 years.

UNITED KINGDOM -

In the UK, "imprisonment for life" means a prison sentence of indeterminate length. In many cases, the Home Secretary sets the "tariff", i.e., the length of the term, for life imprisonment convicts. He has to undergo sentence about 15 years before he can be paroled out.

GERMANY -

The German law has fixed minimum time to be served for a sentence of life imprisonment, which is 15 years after which the prisoner can apply for parole.

AUSTRALIA -

In Australia, term of life imprisonment is usually 25 years.

Therefore, it can be observed that in most of the countries, duration of life imprisonment is indeterminate but after undergoing imprisonment for certain period, parole can be asked for.

JUDICIAL ACTIVISM:-

Many people misunderstood life imprisonment as imprisonment for 14 or 20 years. As the criminal law in India did not provide for fixed duration of life imprisonment, there was still a big confusion. Then the Indian judiciary took the responsibility to clean the air and in numerous cases which came before it, laid down the law regarding life-term.

Gopal Vinayak Godse v. The State of Maharashtra and Ors. [4] 

It was held by a Constitution Bench that the meaning of a sentence of imprisonment for life is no longer res integra. A sentence of transportation for life or imprisonment for life must, prima facie, be treated as transportation or imprisonment for the whole of the remaining period of the convicted person's natural life. It was further held that unless the said sentence is commuted or remitted by appropriate authority under the relevant provisions of the Indian Penal Code or the Cr.P.C., a prisoner sentenced to life imprisonment is bound in law to serve the life term in prison.

State of Madhya Pradesh v. Ratan Singh [5] 

This issue again cropped up here and it has been held that, as laid down in Godse's case, imprisonment for life means sentence for entire life which does not expire automatically at the end of twenty years including remission, because the rules framed under the various Jail Manuals under the Prisons Act cannot supersede the statutory provisions of the Indian Penal Code.

Shri Bhagwan v. State of Rajasthan [6] 

In this case, after considering the facts and circumstances of the case, the Court held that ordinarily 'imprisonment for life' means sentence of imprisonment for whole of the remaining period of the convicted person's natural life and that the rules framed under the Prisons Rules do not substitute a lesser sentence for a sentence for life.

Kartik Biswas v Union of India [7] 

The Supreme Court made it clear that life imprisonment is not equivalent to imprisonment for 14 years or for 20 years. Elaborating the point further the Apex Court ruled that there is no provision either in IPC or in Cr.P.C. whereby life imprisonment could be treated as 14 years or 20 years without there being a formal remission by the appropriate government.

Mohd. Munna v. Union of India [8] 

In this case it was reiterated that life imprisonment was not equivalent to imprisonment for 14 years or 20 years. Life imprisonment means imprisonment for the whole of the remaining period of the convicted person's natural life. This Court observed that there was no provision either in the Indian Penal Code or in the Criminal Procedure Code, whereby life imprisonment could be treated as either 14 years or 20 years without there being a formal remission by the appropriate Government.

Swamy Shraddananda v. State Of Karnataka [9] 

Supreme Court substituted death sentence to life imprisonment and directed that the accused shall not be released from jail till the rest of his life. The Court observed that if the case of accused does not fall in rarest of rare cases, instead of giving capital punishment, accused can be sentenced to life imprisonment, i.e., till the last breath of his life.

R.Suresh S/o Rowthram v State represented by The Inspector of Police,

P-3, Vyasarpadi Police Station, Chennai. [10] 

In this case, Hon. Supreme Court held that the Prisons Act does not confer on any authority a power to commute or remit sentences; it provides only for the regulation of prisons and for the treatment of prisoners confined therein. The rules framed by State government under Section 59 of the Prisons Act do not substitute a lesser sentence for a sentence of transportation for life. 

It thus comes out loud and clear from above mentioned decisions that the "life imprisonment" must be treated to mean an imprisonment for the whole of a convicted person's natural life. As on today there is no provision either in the Indian Penal Code or in the Cr.P.C, which treats such imprisonment for a definite period of fourteen years or twenty years. The result is that no convict sentenced to life imprisonment can claim release as a matter of right after serving a sentence of 14 years or 20 years, any formal remission or commutation by the Government under law notwithstanding.

CONCLUSION:-

What conclusion can be drawn from the above decisions is that life imprisonment is to be interpreted as being imprisonment for the whole of a convict's natural life within the scope of Section 45 of the I.P.C.

On a careful study of Sections 45 and 47 of the I.P.C. and Sections 432, 433 and 433A Cr.P.C., it can be clearly seen that a prisoner sentenced to life sentence has to serve at least 14 years in prison.

By virtue of Section 433A, the minimum term of imprisonment in respect of an offence where death is one of the punishments provided by law or where a death sentence has been commuted to life sentence, has been prescribed as 14 years. In the series of judgments after the decision in Godse's case, 'imprisonment for life' has been repeatedly held to mean imprisonment for the natural life term of a prisoner, though the actual period of imprisonment may be reduced by virtue of remissions earned. But unless the President, under Article 72 of the Constitution, or the Governor, under Article 161 of the Constitution, exercises his power even with remissions earned life imprisonment cannot be reduced below 14 years. It is, therefore, left to the discretion of the empowered authorities to determine the actual length of imprisonment having regard to the gravity of the offence.

Although Supreme Court in a catena of cases has fixed the term of life imprisonment, but the government however, should come up with a law fixing a definite period of life imprisonment resolving dichotomy and thus, put an end to the series of life imprisonment term-determination cases.