Not all crimes deserve the same consequence

Many students have been regular victims of Early Morning Duty (EMD). Here, you are expected to wake up early, reach school before seven o’clock, and scrub moss on the walls or polish dusty trophies.

Students can get EMDs for not fulfilling the expectations at school and dorms, yet, I strongly believe that EMDs are not a fair consequence. The fact is that they do not strengthen morality or alter behavior in a positive way. But instead due to the high frequency of EMDs being given, students do not take the consequence seriously and they end up repeating their actions.

This small local example, surprisingly, reflects the criminal justice system globally. Even though we see little resemblance between the Woodstock EMD system to the criminal justice system, we can notice a similar unfairness.

In the past few weeks, I have researched cases of such unfairness towards mentally ill criminals. I was disturbed that around the world criminals with mental issues were being condemned instead of being treated to prevent them from committing more crimes.

To understand the topic better, I spoke to Ms. Catherine deSwardt, English teacher, who has previously worked with criminals in South Africa. “In most cases, criminals are like me and you,” she said. “However, [unlike us] some people are mentally unfit to prevent themselves from committing crimes. Do such people also deserve the same punishment as a criminal who commits a crime in full consciousness?”

Such questions might make us more empathetic towards criminals. Still, the question remains about the purpose of punishment. The purpose should be to evoke positive growth. But, how can mentally ill criminals improve their behavior in a prison cell?

On August 25, 2001, Professor Devender Pal Singh Bhullar, who was accused of “plotting terror attacks” on a superintendent in Punjab Police and the Youth Congress leader, was given the death penalty. Through the six-year-long trial, many powerful parties and Council members requested the President and the Supreme Court “seeking pardon for Bhullar” and a study of his mental state that confirmed that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia; a mental disorder that is characterized by disturbances in thought, perception, and behavior.

Due to the pressure of the mercy petition and inordinate delay, the Supreme Court commuted Bhullar’s sentence to life imprisonment in 2014. Bhullar, who had served more than 20 years in jail, now has to spend the remaining years of his life incarcerated, however, he has not shown a positive growth and still continues to have an unstable behavior.

Sadly, this is only one of many stories which are heard regarding mentally ill people in courts around the world.

On April 2017, suffering from the same mental illness as Professor Bhullar, Bruce Ward showed “signs of insanity at the time of his conviction for murder” of convenience store clerk Rebecca Lynn Doss in 1990. Although the Harvard University Fair Punishment Project reported Ward to be a paranoid schizophrenic with strange thoughts of being on “a ‘special mission’ as an evangelist,” and that his killings were a part of his “special mission,” he was sentenced to death. This is just another example which shows inhumane verdict towards a person who needs help.

The lawyer supporting Ward sympathized with his mental health state and has challenged Arkansas’ court to prevent the execution from happening; 14 years of “total isolation” in prison was his final verdict.

However, these mentally ill criminals committed their crimes because of the lack of control they have over their thoughts and action. So, how does imprisoning them fulfill the purpose of punishment? They will not show positive growth but this can change if the court sends these criminals for treatment years,” where they go to rehabs and hospitals.

This way when these criminals re-enter society, they will become calm and assertive. These people will also be able to reflect upon their actions and not act on their impulses committing crimes.

So, we need to bring about a change in the system of imprisonment, and this will happen through spreading awareness regarding the mistreatment towards mentally ill people. Fortunately, governments are beginning to see the flaws in their treatment towards mentally ill criminals. One of the first steps taken is that the legislators of seven states in the United States have proposed is to prohibit the death penalty for criminals suffering serious mental illness.

India focuses on developing new mental health care laws that will protect the rights of mentally ill people. According to the Mental Health Care Bill, “access [to] mental health care and treatment from mental health services run or funded by the appropriate Government” will be provided for those in need.

Some rural areas in India still lack treatment facilities for mentally ill people. But on the brighter side, the government is working towards providing treatment and rights to mentally ill people.

Similarly, we need to bring about a change in the system of consequences at Woodstock. It would be better if EMDs are replaced with reflection time where students can talk to a trusted adult. This will allow staff members to identify the cause of the students’ actions and bring up solutions, instead of giving a generalized consequence that does not apply to every offense.

Edited by Swastika Sharma

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