India’s disconnect from effective criminal justice

Demonstrating the poor state of criminal justice administration in India through the use of sobering statistics pertaining to courts, police and prisons in India, MEENAKSHI MAIDAS advocates for sweeping and holistic reforms that ensure that courts, police and prison administration work in cohesion.


“JUSTICE will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
― Benjamin Franklin

THE recent heart-breaking demise of Fr. Stan Swamy has once again exposed India’s broken criminal justice system. The disintegration of our criminal justice system is manifest in the glaring lapses in the functioning of the police, courts and prisons, each of whom seem to work in silos.

Conspicuous by its absence in our policy and political circles is a larger discourse on reforming criminal justice in the world’s largest democracy.

Numbers tell the truth

Fr. Stan was booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in October 2020, which has gained notoriety for its stringency and misuse to book political dissidents. A person charged under the Act is rarely granted bail.

In 2019, 1,928 people were reported to have been arrested under UAPA in 1,226 cases country-wide, up by 72% from 1,128 arrests made in 897 UAPA cases in 2015. Moreover, only 2.2% of cases registered under UAPA between 2016 and 2019 ended in convictions. 

Also read: Supreme Court must stop wanton abuse of UAPA

Although the courts play a huge part in the justice delivery system of the country, the police and prisons play equally important parts.

The Indian police are inundated with numerous shortcomings. The department is understaffed and consequently overburdened. The United Nations (UN) recommends that there be at least 222 police officers per 100,000 citizens; India had just 144 police officers per 100,000 citizens as of 2017.

In addition, the department is also to be blamed for custodial violence, torture, and deaths. According to Tata Trusts’ India Justice Report 2020, Uttar Pradesh’s justice delivery system was identified as the worst, just like in 2019. The recent surge in encounter killings and the callous response of the police during the Hathras rape episode is illustrative of the same. One wonders how the judiciary allows such a sorry state of affairs to continue without pulling up the state government.

However, the courts’ own ability and responsibility to offer criminal justice demands scrutiny. A backlog of 3.5 crore cases exists in the country at all levels of courts, and according to The Economic Survey of 2018-19, 8,500 additional judges are needed to clear the backlog over the next five years. In a country with an unemployment rate of over 7%, it is a pity that so many judicial and police posts are lying vacant. Therefore, the officials who are working are overburdened and prone to more mistakes.

Also read: 400+ HC judges’ posts lying vacant; poor women’s representation in higher judiciary

The wheels of justice turn… slow

With the onset of the pandemic and the consequent closure or restricted functioning of courts for the better part of the last eighteen months, the rate at which cases are being heard has significantly reduced, making the wheels of justice move even slower. Consequently, trials get elongated; the road to justice drags on. A legal system that is anyway too expensive for an average Indian citizen, and courts with a record backlog of cases are not likely to deliver justice. The judiciary needs to take an urgent lead in sorting out this mess.

Last but not the least, Indian prisons are in a pitiable condition, with serious repercussions for the safety and health of prisoners. India’s jails are overcrowded, and a large majority of the imprisoned include under-trial prisoners who are needlessly kept incarcerated for long periods.

Dr Vijay Raghavan, project director at Prayas, a field action project of Tata Institute of Social Sciences which works on prison reforms, told Indian Express, “Over 8,000 undertrials were released last year to decongest jails [as per the Supreme Court’s orders in light of the pandemic]. A very small percentage has reoffended. This shows that they were not a threat to society.” 

India is a signatory to the UN Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners. Yet, it is not able to ensure the proper and safe treatment of prisoners. According to data from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), about five prisoners have died in custody every day, on average, over the last decade. This is most likely an underreported figure, and several more prisoners are routinely tortured.

Also read: How many more Manjula Shetyes before Prison Management becomes Gender Sensitive?

The criminal justice system will only work when the police, the judiciary, and prison administrations – work cohesively and effectively. It is true that our criminal justice system has seen a spate of reforms over the course of our existence as an independent nation. However, there have been droughts of execution and fulfilments. There is a need for sweeping, holistic, and immediate reforms so that criminal justice can prevail in India.

(Meenakshi Maidas is pursuing her Master’s in Journalism from Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Pune. The views expressed are personal.)

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