Justice System in Crisis: The Case of India’s Undertrial Prisoners

Six of every 10 of India's prisoners languishing in jails across the country are undertrials: their cases have yet to be tried, and they are spending more time in jail than they would have, if convicted. The slow march to justice for undertrials must be seen in the context of a criminal justice system in need of an overhaul. This paper examines the plight of the country's undertrials and recommends ways to move forward.

In a recent, landmark judgment in Bhim Singh v. Union of India, the Supreme Court (SC) issued a series of directives to state authorities to facilitate the release of undertrial prisoners who have served half Iof their probable maximum prison term. While the directive is largely a reiteration of earlier judicial measures (SC Legal Aid Committee v. Union of India; Rama Murthy v. State of Karnataka), it is highly significant in that the SC set a deadline-two months-and directed district judges and prison officials to oversee the process. The highest court's extraordinary directive was in response to a criminal justice system that is widely regarded as 'dysfunctional', where undertrials are made to wait for years before their cases are even heard.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, an alarming 67.6 percent of India's prisoners languishing in jails across the country are undertrials; this proportion is one of the world's 10 worst. Of these undertrials, more than 2,000 have been in jail for over five years. India's average occupancy rate in prisons is 112.2 percent. Chhattisgarh (252.6 percent) and 3 Delhi (193.8 percent) have the worst occupancy situation in the country. The situation of undertrials in the country is a matter of great concern that requires drastic action.

This paper examines the plight of the country's undertrials and recommends ways to move forward.

Author(s)

Niranjan Sahoo

Vivek Jain