A report named ‘Criminal Justice in the Shadowof Caste’ authored by Advocate Rahul Singh suggests that one third undertrials in Indian prisons are either Dalit (Scheduled Caste) or Adivasi (Scheduled Tribe). The report has been prepared by National Dalit Movement for Justice in collaboration with Centre for Dalit Rights (CDR), Rajasthan, Social Awareness Society for Youth (SASY), Tamil Nadu and National Dalit Movement for Justice, Maharashtra.
“Despite numerous programs and judicial directives to reduce the overcrowding and correct the situation, little has changed on the ground and lakhs of under-trials still languish in various jails. When it comes to identity of under-trials and convicts, as evident from the data the underprivileged communities make up a large number over the years. Their numbers have only increased in recent years, notwithstanding frequent directives from the Ministry of Home Affairs to jail authorities and the Supreme Court’s judgment in 2014,” the report says.
The report highlights reasons for this sad state of poor and downtrodden behind the bars. It says prejudices, poverty, illiteracy, negligible participation in judicial and police system, delayed investigation, deficient prosecution system, dysfunctional prison system are the reasons behind all this trauma.
Deeply entrenched Prejudices
According to the report, deeply entrenched prejudices against Dalits and Adivasis play an important role in their harassment and incarceration. There are allegations that police officers have their own caste and gender biases and often behave towards Dalits and adivasis in a discriminatory way. Usually the victims of police torture are mainly Dalits and adivasis. They are often picked up and jailed on concocted charges.
Dalits and Adivasis are subjected to illegal arrests and detention and physical torture, by the police in the name of nabbing the “habitual offenders”. The members of the community, including men, women and children, are subjected to systematic, continuing, ruthless treatment in the hands of the police. It has become handy for the police to catch hold of the Dalits and Adivasi communities and foist false cases on them for crimes which they had not committed. Dalits and other indigent people too poor to seek legal counsel obviously spend very long time behind bars, unable to seek justice even when they might be innocent.
Structural and Procedural blockages in Criminal Justice System
Dalits and Adivasi under-trials are one of the victims of India’s centralized justice system, which has a very low ratio of SC and ST judges, a dysfunctional and biased prison system, and alarmingly low police-population ratio with less representation of SC and ST police personals. Little priority is given to improve on effective and discrimination free police institution and prosecution which is friendly towards marginalized. There is also lack of strong commitment to use information and communication tools in carrying out justice delivery functions for the poor.
Many prisoners languish in prisons because the police do not finish investigation, and file the chargesheet in time. This is a very serious matter because such people remain in prisons without any clue of a police case against them. However, low bench strength seems pale in comparison to the role played by police and prosecution functionaries in delaying investigation and trial processes.
While one reason is the low police-population ratio, what compounds this is endemic caste bias in police that has been found to be often the leading reason for delay in prosecution, as well as unnecessary arrests. There are also issues of ‘unjustified or unnecessary’ arrests that police officials often resort to demonstrate the progress of investigation in counter cases fled by the dominant castes.
Section 167 Cr.P.C. lays down the maximum period within which the police investigation must be completed and a chargesheet fled before the court. Tis period is 90 days for offences punishable with death, life imprisonment or imprisonment for a term of not less than ten years, and 60 days for all other offences. Where the investigation has not been completed within the stipulated timeframe, it is mandatory upon the Magistrate to release the accused on bail, provided he is ready to furnish bail.One of the primary reasons for overcrowding of prisons is pendency of court cases. As on March 31, 2016, more than three crore cases are pending in various courts, and two of every three prison inmates in the country are under-trials. Te 4,19,623 prisoners of 2015, for example, included 2,82,076 under-trials, or 67%, according to the NCRB data.
Deficient Prosecution System
Prosecutors lack basic facilities, such as access to legal databases, research and administrative assistants. The Delhi High Court, in a March 2014 order, noted that prosecutors’ laptop allowances exclude payment for internet facilities and legal databases; they do not have exclusive office space in courts and lose files because of insufficient file space. As the court observed, “one of the predominant cause(s) for delay in disposal of criminal case is due to shortage of public prosecutors.”
According to the report, India has around 15 judges per million population, despite the 2002 Supreme Court order, in All India Judges’ Association, directing an increase to 50 judges per million by 2007.
Dysfunctional Prison system
Prison officials are one of the most important, and often the most neglected, part of the criminal justice system. They regularly review the legal status of under-trials to determine whether they have spent enough time in custody to warrant release under Section 436A. Unfortunately, on average, only 66.3 per cent of the sanctioned posts are filled, with Bihar having only 21.1 per cent of the sanctioned prison official strength. Prison officials and staff includes officers, cadre staff, correctional staff, medical staff, ministerial staff and others. Jail cadre forms more than 70 percent of the force. The Model Jail Manual 2016 recommends there should be one guarding staff for every six inmates. In reality it is almost half the standard with 10 prisoners per guarding staff.
Inadequate funding to Judiciary and Policing
The report finds that budget allocation for the judiciary and Policing is a serious concern. Te government is not providing sufficient budget and, time and again, the Judges of Supreme Court and High Courts have to intervene to seek sufficient allocation of Budget. Te low budgetary allocation is grossly inadequate to improve infrastructure, set up new courts and appoint judicial officers, all of which are imperative to bring down the massive pendency rate of cases, from the apex court all the way down the ladder. There are more than 3.3 crore cases pending in courts across the country, many of them for over 10 years. Of these, around 60,000 are in the Supreme Court, a little over four lakh in various high courts and about 2.9 crore in the district and subordinate courts.
Poverty and Illiteracy
Apart from the various structural and procedural issues, Dalits and Adivasi under-trials are poor and illiterate. Most of them are either unaware of the provisions or unable to access these provisions such as bails or sureties or are too poor to arrange personal bond or even sureties from someone to secure bails. On the other hand India lacks competent and adequate legal representation for those incarcerated. Even the legal service authorities at the National and State level have failed to comprehensively identify the under-trials in need of bail or sureties. Thus, in the absence of committed legal structure and system lakhs of under-trials spend years behind the bars despite the qausi judicial mandates issued by the apex courts on their release.