Release them


If Union law minister Veerappa Moily’s plan to release 1.25 lakh undertrials, of the 1.75 lakh who are languishing in the country’s jails for petty crimes for many years, in six months from January 26 succeeds, he would be among those who have made the best contribution to delivery of justice in the country, past or present, minister or king, judge or lawyer. That is no exaggeration because the presence of such a large number of undertrials in jails mocks the system of justice and rule of law, and at no point of time in history have there been so many of them at the same time in jails.  Many of them have already been in jail for longer terms than they would have served if they had been convicted. The majority of them are hauled up there for petty offences and some of them turn real criminals after their long stint in jails. Keeping people in jail without trial for even a short period is a violation of the constitutional right to life and liberty. Most of them are poor and can only suffer in silence.

The minister has written to all chief justices to facilitate early and fast trials in various ways. Plea bargaining by which an undertrial accepts his guilt and the court sentences him to the period already served in jail, day-to-day hearing of cases and holding trial in jails by video-conferencing are some elements in the minister’s plan. The country has been divided into different zones and in each zone an additional solicitor general will supervise the progress of the plan and monitor the freeing of prisoners. Some of these ideas are not new, but they were not implemented with any sincerity.

It is not just the legal and human rights of prisoners that is involved in the matter. The increasing numbers of undertrials result in overcrowding of jails. In fact 2.45 lakh of the 3.5 lakh prisoners are undertrials. Jail facilities are overextended and the costs of staff and infrastructure have increased. If most of the undertrial prisoners are released in the coming months and the numbers don’t swell later, jails can be better managed and administered and their conditions will improve. The plan should be implemented with seriousness and commitment. The government can publish the zone-wise number of undertrials released every week or fortnight after January 26 till July 31, so that the country knows the plan is making progress.

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