Traditionally, the purpose of punishment for crimes has always been retribution and deterrence. This is evident in the types of punishments meted out to criminals in the past. Traditional punishments involve the offender being tortured and/or killed.
However, in contemporary times, the purpose of punishment has changed largely to the reformation of the offender. The idea is that ‘the criminal is not born, he is made’. Thus, alternatives to traditional punishment systems are being implemented. Reformative programmes such as education for the offenders, open prisons, and forms of corrective labour are some of the popular alternative punishment systems whose purpose is the reformation of the offender.
Corrective labour as a system of punishment is a very interesting concept. It involves making the offender work as punishment outside prisons. Here, he is not imprisoned. In fact, he is not separated from his family as much as possible.
Corrective labour as an alternative for traditional imprisonment was first recommended by the Law Commission of India in its 42nd report.
Recommendations in the 42nd Law Commission Report regarding corrective labour
This report recommended the introduction of corrective labour as a form of punishment for non-serious crimes. Corrective labour was recommended to be a substitute for short term imprisonment so that the disadvantages of the traditional jailing system, such as petty offenders associating with hardened criminals, could be avoided.
The responsibility of awarding the punishment, according to the recommendations, lay on the court. The maximum period of corrective labour was to be one year while the minimum period was to be a month.
The focus of the punishment would be to make the offender work as close to his home and with as little deprivation of his freedom as possible. Thus, the work assigned to the offender would, as far as possible, be in his district of residence. He would also receive wages for his work but, at a reduced rate decided by the court.
Repeated evasion of corrective labour by the offender would authorise the court to punish him with normal imprisonment. Also, the period of normal imprisonment would be calculated such that, for every three days of the unserved term, there shall not be more than one day of normal imprisonment.
However, this scheme of punishment was not recommended for serious crimes. Thus, criminals convicted for offences punishable with death, imprisonment for life, and imprisonment for a term exceeding seven years would be given their normal prescribed punishments. Thus, persons convicted for crimes such as rape and murder, considered to be beyond reformation, are excluded.
The recommendations of the report, unfortunately, were not accepted by the government and thus not implemented.
Advantages of the use of corrective labour as punishment
Corrective labour, if used properly can be highly beneficial to the offender, the state, and most importantly, the society itself.
The offender benefits from this system as his personal freedom and liberty are not curtailed as much as they would be if he was imprisoned. He is given an opportunity to work and earn money, he is not separated from his family and most importantly, he is not exposed to the evils of traditional prisons. Prisons across India, face serious problems such as overcrowding, unsatisfactory living conditions, prolonged detention of undertrials, staff shortage, corruption, inadequate social reintegration programmes, poor spending on health and welfare among others. More often than not, former convicts, find it difficult to reintegrate into society once they are released after serving their sentences and revert to their criminal ways. It is also not uncommon for persons convicted for petty offences to commit more serious crimes after coming into contact with other serious criminals while in prison.
The system of corrective labour, by avoiding the need for imprisonment of a bulk of the convicts, reduces the stress on the congested prisons. It also relieves the state from the burden of maintaining these offenders in prisons.
Society benefits from the system of corrective labour as it has been proven to reduce the rates of recidivism among ex-convicts. A 2015 study compared detainees in Belgium with sentences of between six months and three years, and found that the subjects who completed their sentence at home wearing detectable ankle bracelets were less likely to re-offend than peers who had completed their sentence behind bars. A reduction in the rate of recidivism will go a long way in reducing the crime rates in a society.
Instances of implementation of corrective labour
Corrective labour, as an alternative for imprisonment, has not yet been introduced fully in India. however, this is not to say that courts in India do not use corrective labour as punishment. There have been instances in which courts have ordered corrective actions as punishment for crimes.
The most famous instance in which the offender was sentenced punished with a form of corrective labour is the Sanjeev Nanda case. The Supreme Court in this case, ordered the offender to undergo two years of community service failing which he would be subjected to simple imprisonment for a term of two years. While doing so, the bench noted “Convicts in various countries, now, voluntarily come forward to serve the community, especially in crimes relating to motor vehicles. Graver the crime greater the sentence. But, serving the society actually is not a punishment in the real sense where the convicts pay back to the community which he owes. Conduct of the convicts will not only be appreciated by the community, but it will also give a lot of solace to him, especially in a case where because of one’s action and inaction, human lives have been lost.”
There have also been other cases where the court ordered the offender to plant trees as punishment for petty crimes. In Mukesh Mann v State of NCT of Delhi, the High Court of Delhi ordered the offender to plant fifty trees as punishment. However, this was consequent to the settlement of the dispute between the parties through mediation.
Courts use corrective action more often as conditions for release on probation of good conduct under the Probation of Offenders Act, 1958, and not as an alternative for the actual punishment.
Andhra Pradesh became the first state in India to provide legislative support for corrective action by enacting the “AP Community Services of Offenders Act, 2007” which provides for community service assignments for convicts in offences punishable with imprisonment of not more than a year.
The tendency in the contemporary world is to look at convicts not as mere offenders, but as products of social circumstances. Thus, it is fitting that the system of punishment that is meted out to them has been undergoing a lot of changes to suit this new perception. The concept of corrective labour seems to fit this perception quite well as it provides ample scope for the reformation of offenders. This concept, while not new to the Indian judicial system, has not been explored fully in our country. However, voices in support of it have been growing steadily over the years and to see where it goes from here would be very interesting.
 Prison Reforms in India, Members Reference Service, Lok Sabha Secretariat, July 2017 http://parliamentlibraryindia.nic.in/writereaddata/Library/Reference%20Notes/Prison_reforms_in_India.pdf
 Danielle Batist, How The Dutch Are Closing Their Prisons, US News.com (13th May 2019, 12:57 pm), https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2019-05-13/the-netherlands-is-closing-its-prisons
 State v Sanjeev Nanda, AIR 2012 SC 3104, Supreme Court of India, 2012
 Mukesh Mann v State of NCT of Delhi, High Court of Delhi, 2019