Landmark move: Modi Government to bring ‘Achchhe Din’ for undertrials languishing in jails

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66 per cent of prisoners in India are undertrials
In a landmark decision Narendra Modi Government, taking humanitarian approach with regard to the long pending cases of undertrials, has decided to work on a system to release the undertrials, who have served half of their maximum sentences they would have been awarded once convicted. This move is considered as a much needed decision for judicial reforms.

Union Law and Justice Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad confirmed that the NDA dispensation in association with with National Informatics Centre is working to create software and a database of prisoners, with special emphasis on undertrials. The Law minister added that a pilot system is being tried out at Delhi's Tihar Jail, in this regard.

66 per cent of prisoners in India are undertrials

India has an alarming 66 per cent of its prisoners as undertrials are languishing in the jails making it one of the world's 10 ‘worst' in terms of the proportion of undertrials, reports say.

According to a data by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), India's prisons have 2.5 lakh undertrials and many of them are detained indefinitely because the prison system fails to comply with laws that mandate their release after a specified period, based on their offence.

"Over 66 per cent of prisoners are undertrials and there are several others who are overstaying their sentence. Their ratio is more than that of the actual convicts. It is not only a human rights issue but also a matter of great concern for the judiciary. Laws will be appropriately amended and the service of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) will be used to uphold the criminal justice system," Prasad was quoted by an Indian Express report.

No takers for undertrials

The Code of Criminal Procedure (Section 436A) states that undertrials must be released if they have served half the maximum period of imprisonment that their offence warrants (unless their crimes attract a death sentence). But the prevalent prison system in the country often violates it.

Then there are those who are ignorant of law and those who can't even afford to pay court and lawyers' fees and are therefore languishing in the prisons. Neither the prison authorities nor the governments took up this issue seriously.

On an average 3 prisoners are placed in space earmarked for 2

There have been numerous instances when the undertrials were reportedly languishing in the jails for more than 12 months for a crime which results in just 2-3 months of jail.

This burgeoning number of undertrials also results in overcrowding of prisons.

Why this increase in the number of undertrials?

As per a report by National Social Watch, a network of civil society organizations, about two lakh of the undertrials languishing in Indian jails primarily because of delays in the justice delivery system. Such a state of affairs was a consequence of high pendency of cases in the courts, the report further said.

According to the report, four high courts namely Allahabad, Madras, Calcutta and Bombay alone account for nearly 50 per cent of the total pending cases. The states of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Gujarat together have about half of the total pending cases.

The report observed that the total number of pending cases had risen from 2.81 crore in 2004 to 3.17 crore in 2011.

The report's overview document stated, "On an average three people were placed in the space earmarked for two prisoners. In a way this is another form of human rights violation."

One of the main reasons for the pendency of the cases and the state of undertrials in prison also because of the fact that strength of judges in courts could not keep up with the rising number of vacancies. The vacancies might have doubled but the sanctioned strength of judges has marginally improved.

While the strength of judges in district and subordinate courts increased from 14,412 in January 2006 to 18,123 in September 2011, the proportion of vacancies in the same period increased from 19% to 21%, said the report.

Hence, improving just the system and releasing the undertrials is just a temporary solution to this persisting problem. The government will have to fill the existing vacancies and ensure disposal of cases on a fast track basis, else the jails will once again be full of undertrials if things go at existing pace.

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