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The Status of Undertrials in India

Dec 14, 2022


Today’s edition of our Current Affairs will comprise a discussion on the Status of Undertrials in India. Read further to upgrade your UPSC CSE knowledge and also understand the topic’s relevance to the UPSC syllabus.

For Prelims: Governance

Public Policy, Rights Issues, Undertrials, A-21, A-39A, 7th Schedule, prison reforms

For Mains: GS Paper II- Important Aspects of Governance

Judiciary, Social Empowerment, Indian Constitution, Undertrials, A-21, A-39A, 7th Schedule, prison reforms


The situation of many prisoners incarcerated for trial has recently come to the attention of the Indian President.

Probable question

Given the miserable state of undertrials in India, suggest prison reforms along with changes needed in the criminal justice system. (10 Marks, 150 Words)

About the Undertrials

  • A person who is currently on trial, who is being held in jail while awaiting trial, or who is in a legal proceeding is known as an undertrial.
  • According to the 78th Report of the Law Commission, a "undertrial" also refers to a person who is being held in judicial custody on remand during an inquiry.

The Status of Undertrials in India

  • According to NCRB (National Crime Report Bureau), the number of inmates awaiting trial has steadily increased over the past ten years, reaching a peak in 2021.
  • About 76% of all prisoners in the nation were awaiting trial in 2020, and 68% of them were either illiterate or dropouts from school.
  • The largest percentage of people awaiting trial in jails was found to be in Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), at 91%, followed by Bihar and Punjab at 85% and Odisha at 83%.
  • 41% of undertrials had left school before Class X, and about 27% were judged to be illiterate.

Concerns Related to Undertrials

  • Laden with poverty: Because of a lack of financial means or out of fear of social stigma, they are unable to apply for and obtain bail.
  • Violence in Jail: Prisons are frequently hazardous locations for the inmates. Additionally there are widespread riots and group violence. In India, physical abuse and extrajudicial torture committed by jail personnel are frequently observed. Moreover, because of prison officials' actions are not punishable by law, they are free to act carelessly, which frequently results in the deaths of prisoners.
  • Health issues: Most jails struggle with overcrowding and a lack of capacity to house prisoners in a secure and healthy environment. Infectious and communicable diseases are easily disseminated due to the unsanitary environment of people living close to one another. For instance: The spread of tuberculosis (TB).
  • Societal Stigma: The prisoner's family frequently experiences forced poverty and missing children. The family is also subjected to societal stigma and exclusion, which creates conditions that encourage criminality and outside exploitation of the family. The favoured class frequently takes advantage of this circumstance to fully take advantage of the remaining family members. This can happen through forced prostitution or rape.

The Constitutional provisions for Undertrials

  • State Subject: According to Entry 4 of List II of the Seventh Schedule to the Indian Constitution, "prisons/persons therein" is a State subject. The different State Governments are responsible for overseeing and managing prisons. However, the Ministry of Home Affairs often offers direction and counsel to States and UTs on a range of topics pertaining to prisons and convicts.
  • Article 39A: According to Article 39A of the Constitution, the State must make sure that the functioning of the legal system promotes justice on the basis of equal opportunity and must, in particular, offer free legal aid through appropriate legislation or programmes or in any other way to ensure that opportunities to secure justice are not denied to any citizen due to economic or other disabilities. Moreover, the Constitution guarantees the fundamental right to free legal aid or free legal services.
  • Article 21: According to Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which states that "No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty unless in accordance with the procedure established by law," it serves as the foundation for reasonable, fair, and just liberty.

Recommendations of Prison Reforms

The following proposals for improving prisons were made by the Justice Amitava Roy (retired) Committee, which was formed by the Supreme Court:

For Overcrowding:

  • Speedy Trial: One of the finest methods to address the unjustifiable occurrence of overcrowding is still through speedy trial.
  • A minimum of one lawyer should be present for every 30 detainees, which is not the case at the moment.
  • Special Courts: To handle just minor offences that have been outstanding for more than five years, special fast-track courts should be established.
  • Additionally, those who have been charged with minor offences and who have been granted bail but are unable to secure surety should be released on a Personal Recognizance (PR) Bond.
  • Avoid Adjournment: In cases when witnesses are present, adjournments should not be given. Instead, the idea of plea bargaining, in which the accused concedes guilt in exchange for less punishment, should be pushed.

For Prisoners

  • Comfortable Transition: To get through his first week in jail, every new prisoner should be given one free phone call per day to one of his family members.
  • Legal Aid: Providing inmates with efficient legal representation and implementing measures to give them access to education and vocational training.
  • Using Information and Communication Technology (ICT): Using video conferencing as a test.
  • Alternatives: Instead of locking up the criminals, the courts may be allowed to exercise their "discretionary powers" and impose sentences like "fine and admonition."
  • Additionally, in worthy circumstances, judges may be encouraged to release offenders on probation before to trial or following a conviction.
  • For offences carrying a term of up to seven years in prison, the Law Commission of India had recommended in 2017 that undertrial defendants who have served a third of their maximum sentence be released on bail.

Way Forward

  • The Undertrials are the victims of a number of mistakes, including incorrect criminalization, indiscriminate arrests, lax bail entitlements, and insufficient summary judgments through Lok Adalats.
  • A comprehensive legislative overhaul that strives to broaden the scope of individual liberties is required.
  • Both the police and the courts should rigorously abide by the provisions of Section 167 of the CrPC regarding the time restriction for police inquiry in cases of accused undertrial detainees.
  • Remands that are automatically extended must stop, even if they are just issued for the authorities' convenience. The constitutional guarantees under Article 21 cannot be superseded by the government's convenience alone.

News Source: Indian Express

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