NEW DELHI: As lower courts are burdened with more than four crore pending cases and 76% of the prisoners languishing in jails are undertrials, most of whom are poor and illiterate, the Supreme Court on Friday asked the Centre to consider dropping trial proceedings against those who are involved in not very serious offences and have spent one-third of the maximum sentence. It asked the Centre to free them as a one-time measure on the occasion of the 75th year of Independence.
A bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and M M Sundresh said this occasion is the most appropriate to take such a decision to deal with the chronic problems of pendency in courts and overcrowding in jails.
The court asked the Centre to hold consultations with states and take a call on the issue before August 15. It said out-of-box thinking was needed to handle these problems or they will continue to haunt the system for thousands of years.
The apex court's suggestion came just days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi
said more and more of undertrial prisoners be released from jails in the 75th year of Independence and appealed to the district judges, who head the undertrial review committee, to expedite the process for release.
While dealing with a batch of bail petitions of those who have been in jail for years, the bench said first-time offenders involved in petty offences could be let off and criminal proceedings can be dropped if they agree to file bond for good behaviour in society. The court said the government can also put other conditions on them. It suggested that convicts who have been in jail for around 10 years but have not had their appeals heard in high courts due to pendency of cases can be granted bail.
"We are celebrating the 75th year of Independence. It is the appropriate time to take decisions for those who are incarcerated for long and are involved in a single offence," the bench said.
It said such a decision was needed to unclog the courts and jails as the concept of plea bargaining has not been successful in the country due to the social stigma attached to people accepting guilt. The bench said if every case has to go to trial and then high courts and then to the Supreme Court, then this problem will not be resolved.
Additional solicitor general K M Nataraj, appearing for the Centre, said the issue is under government's consideration. He said any decision taken will have to be within the permissible legal framework. The bench said such a step is permissible in law and there was no point in keeping people in jail for years. "This can happen only this year or we will be back to square one," the bench said.
According to NCRB data for 2020, of the total 4,88,511 prison inmates, 3,71,848 (76%) were found to be undertrials. About 27% of all undertrials were found to be illiterate, and 41% had dropped out before class X.
Delhi and Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) were found to have the highest ratio of undertrials in jails at 91%, followed by Bihar and Punjab at 85%, and Odisha at 83%.