Criminal justice system is reform-oriented: Supreme Court
“The idea of punishment has to be reformative,” the Supreme Court bench said, adding, “We do not want to punish persons. They must be reformed and sent back to society. Any policy must consider this aspect of reformation in it.”
The criminal justice system in India is reform-oriented and does not seek to punish criminals, said the Supreme Court while directing the Uttar Pradesh government to consider afresh the premature release pleas of more than 100 life convicts languishing in jail for over 16 years.
“The idea of punishment has to be reformative,” the bench said, adding, “We do not want to punish persons. They must be reformed and sent back to society. Any policy must consider this aspect of reformation in it,” said a bench of justices S Abdul Nazeer and Krishna Murari while dealing with a petition filed by 113 life convicts from Uttar Pradesh for premature release.
The petition by convicts filed earlier this year relied on a premature release policy issued on August 1, 2018, by the state under the UP Prisoners’ Release on Probation Act. Every year, on Republic Day, the state granted remission to prisoners under Article 161, the governor’s power of clemency.
In January 2020, the petitioners became entitled to premature release as they had completed a minimum of 16 years of imprisonment under the 2018 policy. But they did not figure in the list of prisoners released in 2020 and 2021. On July 28, 2021, an amendment to the 2018 policy was made, restricting the benefit to prisoners aged 60 years and above. The same was to apply retrospectively.
Not happy with the state’s amended policy, the bench said on Monday, “We are of the view that that the un-amended policy dated August 1, 2018, should be applicable to the petitioners.” The court directed the state to consider or even reconsider the premature release of the petitioners within six weeks.
The convicts, all lodged at Bareilly Jail, represented by senior advocate ZU Khan and advocate Anu Gupta submitted to the apex court that the amended policy should not be applied retrospectively as the 113 convicts became eligible for release before the coming of the amendment. Gupta said that all the convicts are either young or middle-aged and are bound to be disqualified if the age bar of 60 years is to be applied in their case. Further, they argued that it amounted to discrimination as a 45-year-old person who commits murder will get premature release as compared to a relatively younger convict who is in jail for a similar offence.
The bench said, “Suppose a person is convicted for murder at the age of 20, should he wait for another 40 years to be eligible for premature release? Then what is the purpose of calling it premature release? During this time, if he studies or secures a PhD, what is the harm if he wishes to become a teacher?”
The state argued through additional advocate general Garima Prashad that no convict has an absolute right to premature release on the completion of 16 years imprisonment. Since the petitioners were murder convicts sentenced to life imprisonment, she said, “Life imprisonment is imprisonment for the whole of the convict’s natural life, as held by the Supreme Court in a series of judgments. These petitions do not challenge the amended policy of July 2021. This aspect is being considered by a separate bench of the Supreme Court.”
Arguing in the present case earlier, the state government had filed an affidavit stating that the power to remit or refuse to remit the sentence of a life convict is the discretion of the state and the petitioners’ cases will be strictly considered according to the amended policy. But even here, there were discrepancies as two convicts among the 113 had been refused premature release despite being aged above 60 years.
This is not the first time the Supreme Court has leaned in favour of prisoners languishing in Uttar Pradesh jails. In September, a bench of the Supreme Court granted bail to 97 life convicts languishing in UP jails for more than 20 years with no certainty about their appeals being taken up by the Allahabad high court and the high court bench at Lucknow. In this petition, the convicts had questioned the amendment to the 2018 premature release policy of the state government.
There are over 7,200 convicts in UP who have spent over 10 years in jail and are awaiting a decision on their appeals. At present, nearly 1.83 lakh criminal appeals are pending consideration before Allahabad HC. These figures were presented by the state government before the Supreme Court in August this year where the court was considering a petition by 18 life convicts whose appeals were pending for years together without any hearing on their bail as well.