SC backs early release of convicts after long incarceration

Sep 22, 2023 12:14 AM IST

The Supreme Court favoured premature release of convicts who have served a long period of incarceration if they show reformation

New Delhi Denying premature release to convicts who have served extremely long periods of incarceration not only crushes their spirit but also signifies society’s resolve to be harsh and unforgiving, the Supreme Court held on Thursday, favouring the grant of remission to prisoners even in heinous cases if they have shown reformation.

Supreme Court says denying premature release to convicts who have served extremely long periods of incarceration signifies society’s resolve to be harsh and unforgiving. (HT Archive)
Supreme Court says denying premature release to convicts who have served extremely long periods of incarceration signifies society’s resolve to be harsh and unforgiving. (HT Archive)

A bench of justices S Ravindra Bhat and Dipankar Datta underlined the need to consider the rehabilitation and reformation of convicts, who, during the long period of incarceration, may have transformed and earned the relief of remission by alienating themselves from the persons they were at the time of conviction.

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“Regardless of the morality of the continuing punishment, one may question its rationality. The question is, what is achieved by continuing to punish a person who recognises the wrongness of what they have done, no longer identifies with it, and bears little resemblance to the person they were years earlier,” stressed the bench, as it ordered release of a man from Kerala who had undergone more than 26 years in jail in a murder case.

According to the court, denial of premature release to persons who were convicted when they were young and have served 20 years or more behind bars would violate their fundamental right protected under Article 14 (equality) if the remission board or the state government considers only the facts present at the time of their conviction.

“Excluding the relief of premature release to prisoners who have served extremely long periods of incarceration not only crushes their spirit and instills despair but signifies society’s resolve to be harsh and unforgiving. The idea of rewarding the prisoner for good conduct is entirely negated,” said the bench.

It emphasised that insistence on such long sentences will result in a situation where the convicts die within the prison walls, never seeing freedom, for the crimes which they have committed years ago.

Joseph, 65, had filed a writ petition in the court earlier this year, citing his incarceration since 1998 for murdering a woman in 1994. His case for release was recommended thrice by the jail advisory committee but was shot down by the state government. The latest order of denial of premature release came in 2022, stating that those convicted of murder involving women and children would not be entitled to such relief.

Arguing for Joseph, advocate Adolf Mathew pointed out that his client’s case should be considered as per the remission policy existing in 1998 while adding that his continued incarceration without extending the benefit of premature release was and violative of rights to equality and personal liberty when other persons convicted of same of similar offences were released.

Allowing the writ petition on Thursday, the court held that Joseph’s case related to a plea for compassion and a re-evaluation of the treatment of long-serving inmates. “The insistence on guidelines, obdurately not to look beyond the red lines drawn by it, and the continued denial to consider the impact of prison good behaviour and other relevant factors to ensure that such individual has been rid of the likelihood of causing harm, results in violation of Article 14,” it noted.

The court referred to the 1958 Kerala rules, which stated that life imprisonment was deemed to be 20 years of incarceration, after which prisoners were entitled to premature release. It also cited National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) guidelines, which recommend release after serving 25 years, even for heinous crimes.

Sending Joseph back to the remission board and the state government for a fresh decision would be a “cruel outcome” after his long period of incarceration, said the court, adding it would rather direct for his release in view of the facts of the case and his conduct.

“The grand vision of the rule of law and the idea of fairness is then swept away at the altar of procedure which this court has repeatedly held to be a handmaiden of justice”, said the bench, ordering Joseph’s immediate release.

The Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) requires a state government to obtain the views of the trial court that convicted the prisoner, and that of probation officer and jail officials before a decision on the remission plea is taken. A life term convict becomes entitled to remission only after serving at least 14 years in jail.

Justice Bhat, in a previous judgment on August 26, had emphasised that the ultimate goal of imprisonment, even in the most serious crime, is reformative. He had held that a stereotypical approach in denying the benefit of premature release to reformed prisoners, based solely on a trial judge’s opinion, could defeat the purpose of the remission policy.

Sounding a word of caution against overdrawing on crime, with little or no attention to the criminal, justice Bhat had in this judgment highlighted the need to balance societal interests with the rights of the convict, as it called for considering a wide range of factors that must be considered while deciding on remission.

“If a stereotypical approach in denying the benefit of remission, which ultimately results in premature release, is repeatedly adopted, the entire idea of limiting incarceration for long periods (sometimes spanning a third or more of a convict’s lifetime and in others, result in an indefinite sentence), would be defeated. This could result in a sense of despair and frustration among inmates, who might consider themselves reformed – but continue to be condemned in prison,” the judge had added at the time.

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