Punitive system

Chief Justice of India R M Lodha’s observation  about the country’s criminal justice system  that the process has itself become a punishment cannot be more true in view of the gross injustice being meted out to undertrial prisoners in the country.

He is not the first CJI or person to draw attention to the fact that our prisons house more undertrials than convicts and the slow processes of justice ensure that undertrials stay there for long periods.

The figures quoted by Justice Lodha are not new. He said that in central prisons, undertrials constitute more than 50 per cent of the prison population. In district jails, more than 72 per cent of the inmates are undertrials. The percentage has kept increasing over the years, showing that the judicial process is falling more and more behind the additions to prison strength.

Undertrials are those who wait for their trials and cannot be considered guilty till they are found to be so by a court.  But most of them are punished with incarceration for long periods.

Trials do not take place for many years and in many cases, they spend longer periods in jail than they would have if they had been convicted. Those who get acquitted waste a good part of their lives in jail. Some are even forgotten.

Some years ago, the case of a tribal from Assam who had spent 54 years in jail without ever reaching the trial stage had attracted national attention. Keeping prisoners in jails for long periods is a gross violation of their human rights. It is also a violation of the right to freedom and dignity of individuals.


Those who suffer most as undertrials are people from the weaker sections of society, like the poor, and members of minority communities. Some measures announced in the past to address the problem have not seen good results.

The Centre had told state governments to release all undertrials if and when  they completed half of their possible prison terms. Before that, there was another grandiose announcement that 1.25 lakh of the country’s undertrials would be released in six months.

Both plans were not implemented. Basically, the problem is one of judicial delay for which the reasons are many. Justice Lodha said that as head of the country’s judiciary he feels pain. Most others, too, would. But it is not enough to just leave it there.

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