It has been estimated that out of 3.81 lakh prisoners across the country, about 2.54 lakh are undertrials. Only one-third, or 1.27 lakh, of those in jails have been convicted and are serving their sentence. In British India, the ratio of undertrials to convicts was just the reverse where two-thirds of the prison population was those convicted.
According to the government’s own assessment, many of these undertrials have spent more time in jail than the sentence they would have got had they been convicted for the crime they were arrested for, which is against the law of the land.
Some of these undertrials are petty thieves and rag pickers and can’t afford bail bond for which they continue to languish in prison. In many cases, undertrials have been jailed for more than a decade without their cases being listed for trial. There is no comprehensive central data bank yet on the number of undertrials, the number of years they have been behind bars and nature of their crime.
In September last year, the Supreme Court had set a deadline of December 2014 to release all undertrials who had served half of the maximum sentence prescribed for the offences they had been charged with in FIR against them on personal bond.
A senior officer in the law ministry said the Centre had not received any update from states on how many undertrials were released following the apex court order. Prior to the SC order, the home ministry too had issued advisories to states and all 24 high courts asking them to ensure implementation of Section 436A of the Code of Criminal Procedure that mandates release of such undertrials.
The amendment to CrPC and introduction of Section 436A was carried out by Parliament specifically to ensure release of undertrials who had served half of their prescribed maximum sentence on personal bond.
But this was not the first time that the government had raised the matter with state governments and high courts and brought to their notice the CrPC provisions. “Such advisories were sent to state governments and HCs earlier to implement the amendment brought in CrPC but this was never followed,” a source said.
The home ministry had also developed a software and shared it with states to update prison data across the country. The central data bank, however, is yet to get a complete picture from states.
After the SC judgment, the government had also asked states and HCs to set up review panels in each district to be headed by the district judge with the district magistrate and the superintendent of police as its members to monitor implementation of the apex court order. The panel was asked to review every three months undertrial prisoners in their district and ensure they were released and data was fed into a centralized data bank monitored by the home ministry.