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The Supreme Court on Friday ordered that overcrowded prisons be freed of all undertrials, who have served half their maximum term, setting in motion a process that could be a major step towards reforming the criminal justice system.
The order will provide relief to lakhs of prisoners languishing in Indian prisons waiting for their trial to begin. The law says prisoners awaiting trial must be released once they have served half the maximum sentence they would receive if found guilty, but that is rarely implemented. Only people charged with serious offences such as murder, attempt to murder, rape and dacoity generally remain in jail during trial.
An apex court bench headed by Chief Justice of India RM Lodha said prisons must comply with the law, and ordered local judges and magistrates to oversee the process. Prisoners serving life terms or slapped with death penalty will, however, not come under the ambit of this order that will be first implemented in Delhi’s Tihar Jail.
“Judicial officers shall identify prisoners who have completed half of the maximum period of imprisonment provided for offences they are charged with,” he said. “After completing the procedure they should pass appropriate orders in the jail itself for the release of undertrial prisoners.”
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, around 2.54 lakh prisoners across the country are undertrials. Around 5.6 lakh undertrials were released on bail under the previous UPA government.
Suhas Chakma, director of the Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights, said the order would help poor and illiterate inmates as they are not aware of their rights. “The government should also pay compensation to such people for making them suffer in jails,” he added.
2.54 lakh: Number of undertrial prisoners in the country
1,92,60,128: Total number of criminal cases pending in subordinate courts as on September 30, 2013
44.56 lakh: Number of criminal cases pending in Uttar Pradesh
21.26 lakh: Number of criminal cases pending in West Bengal