- By now, any sane individual would have given up lamenting about the justice delivery system in the country. Right from the age of some comprehension dawning into us as to how the universe works, we have been ingrained about the injustice meted out to common citizens whose travails seeking justice never end. The most disturbing part of the justice delivery system in the country is lakhs of undertrials languishing in various jails for want of hearing. It is extremely criminal to even think about how can anybody be incarcerated even without passing on the judgement for conviction. There may be thousands of innocent people who might be placed behind bars since the very notion of speedy delivery of justice is denied. It’s nothing but a travesty of justice.
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- This particular matter keeps hitting the headlines but the concerned stakeholders viz. the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary seem to look the other way rather than usher in much-needed reforms in legal and prison procedures. Recently, Prime Minister Modi added his voice to many other voices when calling for a repeal of obsolete criminal laws and prison reforms to improve jail management. Linking the repeal of redundant criminal laws with prison reforms is an important step. To contextualise the issue, it makes imminent sense to get an overview of India’s prisons and then link it to the existing legal framework. We know India’s jails are overcrowded and are packed with largely young inmates (18-30 years), most of whom are yet to be convicted.
- Disturbingly, NCRB’s prison statistics for 2021 showed that the occupancy rate was 130%, a 12-percentage-point increase over the previous year. In the two states of UP and Uttarakhand, the occupancy rate was as high as 185%. The overcrowding is because 77% of India’s 5.54 lakh prisoners are undertrials. In other words, three of four inmates have not even been convicted. As many as 11,490 prisoners had spent more than five years in jail without a conviction. The sorry state of India’s prisons has a lot do to with obsolete and irrational criminal laws. Let’s consider a few examples as reported. Over 10% of the prison population in 2021 were undertrials for rape and dowry deaths. Both are heinous crimes that should lead to severe punishment.
- However, sexual assault laws do not differentiate between rape and false promises of marriage. Also, anti-dowry laws are framed in such a way that police can arrest multiple people for one crime. Plus, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that these laws are sometimes misused. About 25% of undertrials in 2021 were imprisoned under special and local laws – for crimes falling under the umbrella of liquor and narcotics. Prohibition laws are irrational and often lead to poorer citizens being jailed for long periods as India’s legal aid system is generally dysfunctional. Obscenity law and the sedition law too are two Raj-era provisions that should be repealed. Thus, legal and prison reforms are imperative to offer succour to common citizens.