A system under trial

Published - May 19, 2015 03:43 am IST

It is unfortunate that more than two years after the Union Home Ministry sent out an advisory to States and Union Territories in January 2013, and eight months since the Supreme Court >kicked off the process of releasing undertrials who have undergone half their likely jail terms in prison, many of them remain in detention. The figure given by the Union government to the court last month suggests that as many as 2,78,000 prisoners, or a little over two-thirds of the total number of incarcerated people in the country’s jails, are undertrials. And the main reason they are still in judicial custody appears to be poverty, as most of them are too poor to afford bail bonds or provide sureties. “This is certainly not the spirit of the law, and poverty cannot be a ground for incarcerating a person,” the Supreme Court observed recently while passing a set of directions. The court found that many of the cases involved were compoundable, and yet many people have been imprisoned without the benefit of compounding being extended to them. It has reiterated that an undertrial review committee, comprising the District Judge, District Magistrate and Superintendent of Police, should be set up in each district. The onus of constituting such a panel for every district has been put on the National Legal Services Authority, acting in coordination with the State Legal Services Authority.

The Code of Criminal Procedure was >amended in 2005, introducing Section 436A, to reduce overcrowding of prisons. Under this section, an undertrial prisoner shall be released on own personal bond if he or she has undergone detention for a period extending to one half of the maximum period of imprisonment specified for that offence. Last year the Supreme Court had asked sessions judges and judicial magistrates to start visiting prisons in their jurisdictional districts from October 1, 2014 to identify and release undertrial prisoners languishing for long periods. It is not clear why these measures have not yielded results. One reason could be that there is inadequate legal aid and advice available to poor prisoners. The legal services authorities in various States must play a principal role in inculcating awareness among prisoners about their rights, especially provisions that entitle them to freedom. It is also in the interest of the government that prisons are not overcrowded, considering the cost of prison space, resources and maintenance. The real solution, however, does not lie merely in the early release of prisoners on bail, but in expediting the trial process. The fact that cases are not decided for long spells that are close to the likely period of imprisonment is a poor commentary on a system beset by delay. The sooner this is addressed, the better it is for the administration of criminal justice.

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