The Supreme Court on Friday mobilised judicial officers across the country to visit every prison in their district for the next two months to identify and release undertrial prisoners who have already underwent detention for half the maximum period of imprisonment their offence prescribes under law.
The court however clarified that the relief does not apply for undertrial prisoners whose offence attracts death penalty.
Magistrates, chief judicial magistrates and sessions judges will start their jail visits from October 1, 2014 to identify and release undertrials. Reports will be filed to the respective State High Courts, which will pass them on to the Supreme Court.
The order passed by a three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India R.M. Lodha saw the judiciary overtake the government's efforts to find a way out for undertrial prisoners languishing in jails for years.
The government had earlier this week announced its plans to write to Chief Ministers about undertrial prisoners who have spent half of their imprisonment period. Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had met to chalk out a blueprint.
Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for the Centre, sought more time to consult with the State governments. But the Bench said it could not wait any longer.
Justice Lodha said the judiciary is witness to men and women detained in prisons for years, and sometimes for more than they would have spent had they been held guilty.
The CJI said the situation demands immediate action as 66 per cent of the prison population in the country are undertrial prisoners, many too poor to raise bond money for bail.
“There are people who cannot take bail. There is nobody for them,” Chief Justice Lodha, heading a Bench of Justices Kurian Joseph and Rohinton Nariman, observed.
The Chief Justice said delays in criminal trials make matters worse for undertrials.
“They languish in jails because courts are not enabled to take up their cases. Many States have no finances for courts. There is no infrastructure, no courtrooms,” Justice Lodha said.
Justice Joseph pointed out to Mr. Rohatgi that what the government announced this week is already there in the statute book since 2005, but not implemented.
The judge drew the Attorney General's attention to Section 436-A in the Criminal Procedure Code, (CrPC), 1973. Justice Joseph said the section exactly corresponds with the government's announcement.
Section 436-A says that undertrial prisoners, who suffered detention “during the period of investigation, inquiry or trial” for one-half of their maximum imprisonment, should be released by the court on personal bond with or without sureties.
“It is all there,” Justice Joseph said.
“We have started the process now. We have sent letters to the Chief Ministers and State Law Ministers,” Mr. Rohatgi said.
But the court was in no mood to wait. “We are of the considered view that some orders deserve to passed today so that undertrial prisoners do not continue to be detained in prisons,” its order said.