THERE were reports of a union minister greeting a group of men who had been recently convicted by a court. This, on the surface, sends a fundamentally wrong message. The social sanction of criminal law and the moral loadedness becomes meaningless and irrelevant. The legitimacy of the entire criminal justice process and the robustness of the entire process comes under question.
Most, if not all countries, distinguish between criminal and civil law and their sanctions. If someone breaches criminal law, sanctions are usually harsher. Similarly, someone who is in breach of a criminal law is referred to as a ‘criminal’ or a ‘convict’.
Civil law, on the other hand, has milder sanctions and a less morally loaded terminology. Civil law is considered as a wrong against a person or a group of people while criminal law is considered a wrong against the state and society as a whole. The collective interests and conscience of the society is deemed to be harmed.
For a criminal system to be effective and enjoy legitimacy, at least two things are crucial. The first is that the functionaries perform their duties fairly, honestly and in accordance with the due process of law. If investigation or trial is conducted in circumstances that breach this test, it is highly likely that the entire result will be seen suspiciously. Unfair prosecution, lack of legal aid, etc., are all essential elements here.
The second and equally important facet of criminal law is that it serves as some form of censure and as a morally loaded tag. Someone who has been ‘convicted’ by way of imprisonment is usually ostracised from society — both physically and metaphorically. This allows for moral deliberation and repentance, as well as reform. It also sends a stern message — these elements are not welcome in society.
Criminal law has a tough task — it has to balance the interests of the accused with the interests of the victims. Even criminals, regardless of how heinous their crimes are, still continue to be citizens and deserve to be treated in a manner that is not degrading or inhumane. Yet, if there is positive encouragement to criminals, a basic tenant and function of the criminal justice system comes crashing down on itself.
Due process and the law certainly should follow its own course. It is also imperative that we continue with a model of criminal justice in which we treat criminals as moral agents capable of moral deliberation and thereby reform. To snatch away even that chance is to, in many ways, feel shy of our commitments as a society.
Nonetheless, as a representative of the people, and thereby the society, to greet convicted murderers is highly questionable.