With the hullabaloo around the decision to grant parole to Sanjay Dutt (to tend to his ailing wife), there is a danger that the central issue will be lost. A perception seems to have been created that granting parole to a prisoner is an act of leniency. Already, due to the failures of the criminal justice system, there is an overwhelming — somewhat true — opinion that criminals are allowed to get away, especially the rich and powerful.
To start with the basics, what exactly is parole, on what grounds is it granted and who has the power to grant it? To answer these questions, one has to understand the principle of separation of powers that underlies the criminal justice system. The police, the prosecution, the judiciary and the prison administration perform specific roles, ranging from the investigation of a crime and arrest to the sentencing process and rehabilitation of the offender. It is for this reason that the personnel appointed in the police, the prosecution, the judiciary and the prison departments belong to separate cadres and undergo specialised training which equips them for these jobs.
Once in the custody of the prison officer, correctional philosophy dictates that each offender must be viewed as part of a distinct category, as well as an individual who can be reintegrated in the mainstream. Every prisoner is entitled to basic rights and facilities enshrined in the law as well as certain privileges, conditional to his or her behaviour inside and the family situation outside. Parole falls in the latter category. It is an executive decision and is granted to a convicted prisoner, based on the criteria laid down and procedures specified in state prison manuals. It is usually granted for the prisoner to attend to emergency situations at home or on humanitarian grounds, as also to strengthen family ties (crucial from the point of view of rehabilitation). The procedure takes into account the possible harm that may be caused if the prisoner returns to the area, albeit temporarily.
The concept of parole in the West is far more liberal. It is a suspended sentence, whereby the convicted prisoner who has completed a minimum period of imprisonment is released into the community till the end of his or her term under the supervision of a parole officer, and with additional conditions if necessary. It has been found to be a cost effective and more humane form of dealing with offender populations, especially certain categories of offenders.
In our country, we are far more conservative when it comes to prison reforms. Statistics reveal that our judges and prison authorities are very conservative when it comes to considering alternatives to imprisonment such as release on probation (under a law that provides for conditional release of a convict in the community in lieu of imprisonment), community service and release on parole. These provisions should be viewed as options for the decision-making authorities to choose from, rather than leniency towards the offender. Rather than leave such important decisions to the discretion of individuals occupying positions of authority, the government must frame guidelines and set up state sentence review boards, as suggested by the Model Prison Manual, 2003. This would reduce arbitrariness in the process. In the absence of such guidelines and an independent authority, these facilities will continue to come under suspicion whenever high-profile offenders are considered for release. Parole is an innovation in penal policy that needs to be strengthened rather then curtailed. Let us not miss the wood for the trees.
The writer is professor and chairperson, Centre for Criminology and Justice, School of Social Work, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai firstname.lastname@example.org