Updated: February 13, 2017 9:37:05 am
With over two-thirds of the prisoners lodged in jails across the country being undertrials, Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has written to the chief justices of all high courts to “review all such cases” and “take suo motu action for their release”.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for 2015, of the over 2.82 lakh people behind bars, over 67 per cent inmates are undertrials. About 65 per cent spend three months to five years in jail before securing bail.
In his communication sent to 24 high courts last week, Prasad urged the chief justices to ensure that “the basic human rights of undertrials are not undermined” by their imprisonment for terms longer than the period mandated by law.
He said the government and the judiciary must take “collective responsibility” so that undertrials who are incarcerated despite serving the minimum term laid down under the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) are released forthwith.According to Section 436A of the CrPC, all undertrials who have already served half the period of their sentence if convicted can be released on bail. In September 2014, the Supreme Court relied on Section 436A to direct all states to release such undertrials.
The order by a three-judge bench had reiterated that an undertrial review committee (UTRC), comprising the district judge, district magistrate and superintendent of police, should be set up in each district for identification of such jail inmates. The Supreme Court had also asked the central government to provide a roadmap for “fast-tracking” the entire criminal justice system.
Citing this order, Prasad, in his letter, said the exercise to identify prisoners who have already served half of their likely maximum sentence must be carried out with a sense of urgency so that pre-conviction incarceration does not end up being violative of basic human rights.
“All the stakeholders — the Government of India, the judiciary, including the Legal Services Authority — need to take collective responsibility for ensuring that institutional mechanism, such as UTRC and legal aid system, work seamlessly to ensure access to justice for the undertrial population,” he said, adding that the authorities must also ensure that undertrials get effective representation and timely justice.
Appealing to the chief justices to issue necessary instructions for reviewing all undertrial cases under Section 436A of CrPc and take suo motu action for their release, he said: “I shall also be grateful if the high court ensures that the UTRC mechanism, for periodic monitoring of undertrial releases, continues to effectively deliver its mandate, so that the basic human rights of undertrials are not undermined.”
Prasad also sought the judiciary’s support in the “national endeavour” to free undertrials. “I would also be keen to receive any suggestions that you (chief justice) may have to improve the present system of justice delivery in your state,” he said.
The issue of undertrials has often come up in the row between the judiciary and the government over shortage of judges and judicial appointments. Former Chief Justice of India T S Thakur had reproached the government repeatedly for stalling the process of judicial appointments and not providing the judiciary with enough judges and infrastructure to deal with the problem of prisons overflowing with undertrials. Justice Thakur had claimed that at least 40,000 more judges were required in subordinate judiciary, but the law ministry disputed the figure, saying it had no rationale or empirical basis.
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