STATUS OF UNDERTRIALS IN INDIA
Copyright infringement not intended
Picture Courtesy: www.imdb.com
Context: Parliamentary Panel on Home Affairs has made recommendations aimed at addressing the issue of overcrowding in India's prisons.
Key Highlights of the recommendations
Ankle Trackers or Bracelets for Inmates
- The Parliamentary Committee on Home Affairs has proposed the use of ankle trackers or bracelets as a practical solution to alleviate overcrowding in prisons. These tracking devices would be designed to be cost-effective and would be worn by prisoners who have been granted bail and are temporarily released from prison.
- The primary purpose of these trackers is to monitor the movements of these individuals and ensure they comply with their bail conditions. This proposal arises from the understanding that bail is often denied for three primary reasons: the concern that undertrial prisoners may tamper with witnesses, attempt to leave the country, or commit additional crimes while out on bail.
Voluntary Use and Informed Consent
- The report underlines the importance of respecting human rights and ethical considerations. To avoid any potential human rights violations, the panel recommends that the use of ankle trackers should be entirely voluntary and based on the informed consent of the inmates.
Overcrowding and Delayed Justice
- The committee acknowledges the severe problem of overcrowding in Indian prisons, which has resulted in delayed justice for both prisoners and the overall criminal justice system. To address this, the report suggests that prisoners from overcrowded facilities should be transferred to other jails that have available cells, either within the same state or to jails in different states.
Lack of Signal Jamming Technology
- The panel noted a technological deficiency in many State prison departments, as they either lack signal jammers or possess devices that can only block 2G and 3G network signals. This deficiency has allowed mobile phones to become a significant contraband item that is frequently smuggled into prisons.
Prison Statistics (2021
- The report references prison statistics from the National Crime Record Bureau for the year 2021 to illustrate the gravity of the situation. India has a total of 1,319 prisons with a combined capacity to hold 4,25,609 prisoners. However, the actual inmate population exceeds this capacity, with a total of 5,54,034 inmates, leading to an occupancy rate of 130.2%. Among these inmates, 4,27,165 are undertrial prisoners, and 1,22,852 are convicted prisoners.
- The report also highlights a growing population of female prisoners and a significant understaffing issue, with prisons operating at roughly 30% below the required staffing levels.
Undertrials In India
- The status of undertrials in India is a matter of grave concern. As of 2021, over 77% of the total prison population in India were undertrials, meaning that they had not yet been convicted of a crime. This is a significant increase from the 68% of undertrials in 2019 and is the highest proportion of undertrials in the world.
Reasons for the high number of undertrials in India
- Case Backlog: India's judicial system is inundated with a massive backlog of cases at all levels of the judiciary, including lower courts, high courts, and the Supreme Court. This backlog has accumulated over the years due to the slow pace of litigation, procedural complexities, and insufficient judicial resources.
- Limited Judges: India has a significant shortage of judges compared to the number of pending cases. The slow appointment of judges and vacancies in the judiciary further exacerbate the backlog.
- Complex Legal Process: Legal procedures in India can be complex and lengthy. Cases involve multiple stages, including filing, evidence collection, hearings, and appeals. Each stage can result in delays due to procedural hurdles.
- Adjournments: Frequent adjournments, often sought by both the prosecution and defence, contribute to case delays. Sometimes, adjournments are requested for legitimate reasons, but they can also be misused to prolong cases.
Lack of Legal Aid
- Economic Disparities: Many accused individuals, particularly those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, cannot afford legal representation. The cost of hiring a lawyer, court fees, and related expenses can be prohibitive for them.
- Awareness Gap: There is often a lack of awareness among underprivileged individuals about their right to free legal aid. They may not know that they are entitled to legal representation at state expense.
Quality of Legal Aid
- Overburdened Legal Aid Services: The legal aid system in India is often overburdened, with a limited number of lawyers handling a large number of cases. This can affect the quality of legal representation provided to undertrials.
- Inadequate Training: Some legal aid lawyers may not have the necessary training or resources to provide effective representation, especially in complex cases.
- Arbitrary Arrests: In some cases, law enforcement agencies may make arbitrary arrests without conducting thorough investigations or presenting clear evidence. This can occur due to pressure to show progress in solving cases or personal biases.
- Lack of Due Process: Undertrials may be held in police custody or detention centres without proper adherence to due process. This includes the right to be informed of charges, access to legal counsel, and protection against torture or abuse.
Preventive Detention Laws
- Subjective Criteria: India has laws like the National Security Act (NSA) and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) that allow for preventive detention based on subjective criteria. These laws can lead to prolonged detention without trial, as they do not always require concrete evidence of a crime.
- Discretionary Bail: The granting of bail in India is often discretionary, and several factors, including the perceived seriousness of the alleged crime and the financial status of the accused, can influence bail decisions. This can result in individuals remaining incarcerated while their cases are pending.
Inefficiencies in Case Management
- Record-Keeping: Poor record-keeping and communication among various stakeholders, including courts, police, and prisons, can lead to delays in the trial process. Lost files, misplaced evidence, and administrative errors can further prolong cases.
Multifaceted impacts across various aspects of society, the legal system, and individuals.
Legal and Human Rights Impact
- Violation of Fundamental Rights: Prolonged detention without trial infringes upon several fundamental rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution, including the right to a speedy trial (Article 21), the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty (Article 20(3)), and the right to equality before the law (Article 14).
- Wrongful Detention: Many undertrials spend extended periods in jail, sometimes even exceeding the potential sentences for the crimes they are accused of. This results in a grave miscarriage of justice and wrongful detention, where individuals are unfairly punished for alleged crimes they may not have committed.
Overcrowding in Prisons
- Inhumane Conditions: The high number of undertrials contributes to overcrowding in Indian prisons, leading to deplorable living conditions. Overcrowded prisons often lack sufficient space, proper sanitation, and access to healthcare, and nutrition, violating basic human rights.
- Health Risks: Overcrowding increases the risk of disease transmission within prisons. Contagious diseases like tuberculosis and COVID-19 can spread rapidly, posing serious health risks not only to inmates but also to prison staff.
Judicial and Legal System Impact
- Backlog of Cases: Undertrial are a significant factor in the backlog of cases in the Indian judicial system. This backlog further delays the resolution of cases for all individuals, creating frustration and undermining faith in the legal system.
- Resource Strain: The legal system, including courts and law enforcement agencies, is strained by the sheer volume of cases. This affects their efficiency and ability to deliver timely justice, leading to inefficiencies and delays.
Socioeconomic and Psychological Impact
- Stigmatization: Being labelled as an undertrial can lead to social stigma and discrimination, making it difficult for individuals to reintegrate into society even if they are eventually acquitted. This stigma affects employment prospects, relationships, and overall well-being.
- Psychological Distress: Prolonged detention and uncertainty about the future can lead to severe psychological distress among undertrials. They may experience stress, anxiety, depression, and a sense of hopelessness, negatively impacting their mental health.
- Loss of Livelihood: Many undertrials are the primary earners for their families. Prolonged detention can result in the loss of livelihoods and financial hardship for their dependents, perpetuating cycles of poverty.
- Cost of Incarceration: The cost of housing and maintaining undertrials in overcrowded prisons adds a financial burden to government resources.
Criminal Justice and Reformation Impact
- Resource Allocation: Overcrowding and prolonged detention divert resources away from rehabilitation and reformation programs in prisons. This hinders the potential for inmates to reintegrate into society as law-abiding citizens after serving their sentences.
- Impact on Criminal Justice: Delays in trials can lead to the deterioration of evidence and the weakening of cases, potentially resulting in wrongful acquittals or convictions.
Public Confidence in the Legal System
- Erosion of Trust: The high number of undertrials and the resulting delays erode public confidence in the legal system. When justice is delayed or denied, citizens may lose trust in the ability of the legal system to provide timely and fair outcomes, undermining the rule of law.
Steps taken to address the issue of undertrials and improve the criminal justice system
- Fast-Track Courts: India established fast-track courts to expedite the trial of cases, particularly those involving heinous crimes and cases pending for a long time. These specialized courts focus on reducing delays in the judicial process and delivering swift justice.
- Use of Technology: The Indian judiciary has increasingly adopted technology for case management and court proceedings. This includes the digitization of court records, the introduction of e-filing systems, and the use of video conferencing for hearings. Technology helps streamline legal proceedings and reduce delays caused by administrative issues.
- Legal Aid Initiatives: India has implemented various legal aid initiatives to provide free legal representation to underprivileged individuals, including undertrials. Notable initiatives include:
- National Legal Services Authority (NALSA): NALSA is a statutory body responsible for providing free legal services to marginalized and disadvantaged groups. It operates through Legal Services Authorities (LSAs) at the national, state, and district levels.
- Legal Aid Clinics: Legal aid clinics and centres have been established across the country to offer legal assistance to those who cannot afford legal representation. These clinics bridge the gap between indigent undertrials and legal resources.
- Bail Provisions: The Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), India's primary criminal procedural law, contains provisions related to bail. Courts are encouraged to grant bail to individuals accused of non-heinous crimes to prevent unnecessary detention. The CrPC also provides guidelines for the determination of bail, taking into account factors such as the nature of the offence, the character of the accused, and the likelihood of absconding.
- Landmark Judicial Decisions: Indian courts, including the Supreme Court, have issued landmark judgments emphasizing the importance of bail and the principle of "bail, not jail." These decisions highlight the need to protect the rights of undertrials and ensure that they are not held in custody for extended periods without a fair trial.
- Rehabilitation and Reformation Programs: Efforts have been made to improve the conditions in prisons and implement rehabilitation and reformation programs for inmates. These programs aim to help individuals reintegrate into society after serving their sentences, reducing the chances of recidivism.
- Review of Undertrial Cases: Periodic review of undertrial cases is encouraged to identify individuals who are eligible for release on bail or whose cases can be expedited. This helps in reducing the undertrial population.
- Legal Awareness Campaigns: Government and non-governmental organizations conduct legal awareness campaigns to educate individuals, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, about their legal rights and the availability of legal aid services. This empowers individuals to assert their rights within the criminal justice system.
- Shortage of Judges: India continues to face a substantial shortage of judges across various levels of the judiciary. This shortage leads to heavy caseloads for judges, resulting in delays in court proceedings and prolonged undertrial detentions.
- Inadequate Infrastructure: Many courtrooms, especially in rural and remote areas, lack proper infrastructure, including sufficient space, basic amenities, and modern technology. Inadequate infrastructure hampers the efficiency of the judicial process.
- Limited Legal Professionals: There is a scarcity of legal professionals, including public prosecutors and defence lawyers, particularly in rural and underserved regions. This shortage can result in delays in trials and difficulties in providing legal aid to underprivileged individuals.
Lack of Awareness
- Legal Illiteracy: A significant portion of the population, especially those from marginalized communities, remains legally illiterate. They lack an understanding of their legal rights and how to navigate the complex legal system, making them vulnerable to prolonged detention.
- Limited Outreach: Efforts to raise awareness about legal rights and the availability of legal aid services may not reach remote or economically disadvantaged areas. Effective outreach programs are crucial to ensure that vulnerable populations are informed about their rights and the support available to them.
- Arbitrary Arrests: Despite legal provisions and guidelines, arbitrary arrests by law enforcement agencies persist. Individuals may be arrested without sufficient evidence or due process, leading to wrongful detention. The lack of accountability for such arrests is a concern.
- Custodial Abuse: Incidents of custodial abuse, torture, and violations of due process rights continue to be reported. Implementing effective police reforms to prevent such incidents remains a challenge, requiring changes in law enforcement culture, practices, and accountability mechanisms.
- Slow Investigation: Delays in the investigation process can contribute significantly to prolonged detention. Investigations may be sluggish, incomplete, or subject to undue influence, further delaying the legal process.
Backlog of Cases
- Overburdened Judiciary: The Indian judicial system remains overburdened with millions of pending cases. This backlog affects not only undertrial cases but also the timely resolution of other legal matters. Addressing this backlog is essential to expedite trials and reduce the undertrial population.
- Access to Legal Aid: Despite legal aid initiatives, access to quality legal representation remains a challenge for underprivileged individuals. Economic disparities and limited access to legal aid services persist, impacting the fairness of trials for marginalized communities.
- Bail Challenges: While bail provisions exist, obtaining bail can still be challenging, particularly for those accused of serious offences or individuals with limited financial means. This can result in prolonged detention for undertrials.
Way forward to address the issue of undertrials in India
- Increase the Number of Judges: Address the chronic shortage of judges at all levels of the judiciary, from lower courts to the higher judiciary. This should be accompanied by timely appointments to vacant positions.
- Court Infrastructure: Invest in the development of court infrastructure, including the construction of more courtrooms, provision of modern technology, and improvement of administrative facilities to enhance the efficiency of the judicial system.
- Timely Disposal of Cases: Enforce strict timelines for trials and streamline court procedures to expedite the resolution of cases. This may involve the creation of specialized courts for specific types of cases.
Legal Education and Awareness
- Legal Literacy Campaigns: Launch widespread legal literacy campaigns targeting marginalized communities, rural areas, and schools. These campaigns should aim to educate individuals about their legal rights, the importance of legal representation, and the availability of free legal aid services.
- Integration into School Curriculum: Incorporate basic legal education into the school curriculum to promote legal awareness from an early age and foster a culture of legal literacy.
- Training and Sensitization: Implement comprehensive police reforms focused on enhancing the training, professionalism, and sensitivity of law enforcement personnel. Training programs should emphasize the importance of respecting due process rights and conducting thorough, unbiased investigations.
- Accountability Mechanisms: Establish independent oversight bodies to monitor and investigate allegations of police misconduct, including custodial abuse. Accountability mechanisms should ensure that law enforcement officers are held responsible for any violations of the law.
Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)
- Promotion of ADR: Encourage the use of alternative dispute resolution methods, such as mediation, arbitration, and negotiation, to resolve disputes outside the traditional court system. This can help expedite the resolution of cases and reduce the burden on the judiciary.
- Training and Certification: Provide training and certification programs for mediators and arbitrators to ensure the effectiveness and professionalism of ADR mechanisms.
Regular Review of Cases
- Periodic Case Review: Establish a systematic process for the periodic review of undertrial cases. This review should identify individuals who are eligible for release, bail, or expedited trials based on factors like the nature of the offence, time served, and the likelihood of absconding.
- Use of Technology: Utilize technology, including case management software, to facilitate the case review process, improve transparency, and ensure that cases are not overlooked or delayed.
Legal Aid and Support
- Expanded Legal Aid Services: Increase the reach and capacity of legal aid services, especially in underserved and rural areas. This includes appointing more legal aid lawyers, establishing legal aid clinics, and providing resources for effective legal representation.
- Access to Counsel: Ensure that every accused person, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, has immediate access to legal counsel from the moment of arrest. Legal aid lawyers should be readily available to provide support and guidance.
- Engaging NGOs and Civil Society: Collaborate with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society groups actively involved in legal awareness, advocacy, and support for undertrials. These partnerships can amplify efforts to raise awareness, provide legal assistance, and advocate for systemic reforms.
Data Collection and Monitoring
- Establish Comprehensive Data Systems: Develop robust data collection and management systems to track the progress of cases, including undertrial cases. Regularly updated data can help identify bottlenecks, inefficiencies, and areas needing improvement.
- Periodic Impact Assessment: Conduct periodic impact assessments of reforms and initiatives to measure their effectiveness in reducing the undertrial population and improving the criminal justice system.
Addressing the issue of undertrials in India requires a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach involving legal reforms, resource allocation, education, and public awareness. A steadfast commitment to upholding the rights of individuals within the criminal justice system is essential to ensure that justice is delivered in a fair, timely, and equitable manner.
- The parliamentary panel's report, titled 'Prison-Conditions, Infrastructure and Reforms,' offers comprehensive recommendations to address the multifaceted challenges facing India's prison system, including overcrowding, technological shortcomings, human rights concerns, and the preservation of historical jail structures for educational and cultural purposes
Must Read Articles:
PRISON REFORMS: https://www.iasgyan.in/daily-current-affairs/prison-reforms
UNDERTRAILS PRISONERS: https://www.iasgyan.in/daily-current-affairs/undertrails-prisoners
PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEES: https://www.iasgyan.in/daily-current-affairs/parliamentary-committees-33#:~:text=Parliamentary%20committees%20are%20an%20integral,ministries%2C%20and%20studying%20particular%20problems.
Q. What are the key challenges in addressing the issue of undertrials in India, and what strategies can be implemented to overcome these challenges and improve the situation for undertrials within the Indian criminal justice system?