Overcrowded jails: Why's SC shocked?

Overcrowded jails: Why's SC shocked?

Despite repeated directions of the Supreme Court to decongest them, Indian jails are among the most overcrowded in the world. According to the latest official figures, most of them are packed to over 150% of their capacity; in some prisons, overcrowding by over 600% have been recorded. Tardy and pathetically slow pre-trial investigation and the subsequent judicial trial is the principal cause of this. Two out of every three jail inmates in the country are under-trial prisoners, and quite a large number of them have already spent more time than they would have upon conviction. Thousands of children are behind bars because their mothers are under-trials. The Law Commission, in its several reports, and the Malimath Committee had suggested incorporating 'plea bargaining' in the Indian criminal justice system as one way to address the related problems of slow justice and overcrowded prisons. It has not taken off in a big way.

Plea bargaining involves the accused agreeing to plead guilty before trial, with the agreement of the prosecution and the victim in a case, in exchange for a lenient sentence. Following its success in the United States, it has been successfully introduced in many countries in North America, Europe and Asia. In India, a law allowing plea bargaining took effect in 2006. It allows plea bargaining in cases concerning criminal offences for which the maximum sentence is up to seven years of imprisonment. Socio-economic offences and crimes related to women and children are excluded. Once a court passes an order based on plea bargaining, the ruling cannot be appealed against in a higher court.

Hailed as one of the most effective ways to reduce the load on our over-burdened criminal justice system, plea bargaining could result in the settlement of nearly two-thirds of all criminal cases, freeing up the courts as well as the overcrowded prisons. However, the courts and lawyers have not used the provision effectively so far; public awareness of it is also low. According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau, only 0.45% of cases were disposed of by plea bargaining in 2015. Plea bargaining can go a long way in helping parties opt out of long drawn trial and thus relieve pressure on prisons, but its reach needs to be widened for the criminal justice system to start showing results. Today, nearly 2.5 crore criminal cases, some of them as old as 10 years or more, are pending before the courts. The average time taken to decide cases is over 10 years. A vigorous use of the provision of plea bargaining, among other methods of alternative dispute resolution, will have to be made to save the system from total collapse.

 

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