Link Between Mental Health and Death Penalty: Daily Current Affairs

Keywords: GS_2 , Project 39A, Death Sentence, UN Nelson Mandela Rules, Psycho-Social Approach

Why in News:

  • Recently NLU Delhi’s Project 39A released its report Deathworthy in collaboration with NIMHANS.
  • It studied the life and history of prisoners who have been given death punishment.
  • India has a chequered history with the death penalty.
  • Nearly 500 prisoners have been sentenced to death row, nine individuals have been executed since 2014, and there has been a legislative expansion of the death penalty, in particular for crimes of sexual violence.
  • Recently, there has been a legislative expansion of the death penalty mainly for sexual violence crimes.

Socio-economic profile of death row convicts:

  • Economic Vulnerability: Around 70% of the prisoners sentenced to death in India are economically vulnerable according to their occupation and landholding.
  • Educational Profile: Around 20% of prisoners sentenced to death had never attended school. A further 10% had barely attended but had not completed even their primary school education.
  • Caste and Religious Profile: Around 70% of prisoners sentenced to death in India are backward classes and religious minorities.

Legal Provisions:

  • Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, a person’s life and personal liberty are to be protected (subject to reasonable restriction: execution via procedure established by law).
  • The Indian Penal Code, under Section 84 of the Act exempts people with mental disorders who are not lucid at the time of committing the offence provided they do not understand the nature of the offence they are committing, however, this clause fails to recognize conditions persisting in the prisons that often cause mental health deterioration or exemplify it.
  • The United Nations Commission on Human Rights urges all nation-states to not impose the death penalty on a person suffering from any mental disorder.

Landmark Judgements and Provisions Recognizing the aspect of Mental Illness:

  • Bombay High Court in State of Maharashtra v. Santosh Maruti Mane (2014) – while conforming death penalty held that mere prior incidence of treatment is not sufficient. It has to be established that at the time of commission of an offence, the accused was of unsound mind and incapable of understanding the consequences of his action.
  • Shatrughan Chauhan v. Union of India (2014) – Supreme Court had said that mental illness should warrant the commutation of death sentence to life imprisonment. Despite this, courts do not consider mental illness as a mitigating factor when imposing punishment.
  • In Re-Inhuman Conditions Case – Supreme Court recognized that every prisoner with mental illness has a right to live with dignity. The court also upheld the right of prisoners on death row to meet mental health professionals under Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution.
  • Courts have stressed on providing psychological counseling to prisoners – to prevent or ensure early detection of mental illness. The High Courts have also reiterated that prisoners cannot be deprived of treatment for mental illness, such as in the Vaman Narain Ghiya case, and emphasized the treatment and rehabilitation of prisoners with mental illnesses.
  • Recommendations of Courts as per the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (UN Nelson Mandela Rules) and Rights of Persons with Mental Illness RULES, 2018 – Both the rules provide a comprehensive standard for mental healthcare services in prisons, including mental status examinations at the time of entry to prison and questionnaire screening for substance abuse. However, these safeguards remain woefully inadequate due to their non-implementation.

Approach for tackling Mental Illness:

  • Taking– A psycho-social approach will allow courts to take into account the life history of an individual and relate this to the mental state of the individual especially during commission of the crime.
  • Framework recommended by Supreme Court in Bachhan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980) – The Article suggests that courts should take a psycho-social approach towards sentence reduction using the framework recommended by the Supreme Court in Bachhan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980). As a part of framework laid down in Bachhan Singh case (which upheld the constitutional validity of capital punishment) – it also suggested to consider mental health issues such as “extreme mental or emotional disturbance” at the time of the incident and acting under “duress”.
  • Social Determinants of Mental Illness should also be considered – Mental illness is more common among the poor and those with mental illness are more likely to end up in poverty. Those who have experienced childhood abuse are significantly more likely to experience mental illness in adulthood than those who did not. Report by Project 39A provides an insight into the poverty, abuse, neglect and violence that mark the overwhelming majority of death row prisoners with mental illness. It sheds light on the stigma, social exclusion and grief of families of those sentenced to death.


  • Mental illness is not a crime and those with mental illness are vulnerable to violation of their rights. Rights of convicts suffering from mental illness should be addressed by qualified doctors and shortcomings under the existing legal framework of Mental Healthcare (Rights of Persons with Mental Illness) Rules 2018 must be addressed.
  • Evidence has shown that there is no link between death punishment and crime rate. In fact, murder rates have declined in 10 out of 11 countries that abolished capital punishment.
  • The Mental Health of the convict should be considered before giving capital punishment, as is the norm in international law.
  • It was time the courts took due cognizance of the same. The execution of a mentally ill person is a cruel punishment.
  • The criminal justice system is set up to ensure that convicts are punished in such a way that the crime, which affects the whole society, sufferers from a deterrent effect and people take extra care and caution in separating right from wrong, lawful from unlawful.

Indian Express  
The Print 

Prelims Question:

Q. Consider the following statements:

  1. Project 39A provides an insight into socio-economic determinants of the overwhelming majority of death row prisoners with mental illness.
  2. Most of the death row convicts belong to disadvantaged sections of the society.

Which of the above statements is/are correct?

(a) 1 only

(b) 2 only

( c) Both are correct

(d) Neither is correct