Supreme Court orders immediate premature release of a life convict who has spent 35 years in prison

Blanket exclusion of certain offences from the scope of grant of remission, especially by way of an executive policy, is not only arbitrary, but turns the ideals of reformation that run through our criminal justice system on its head,” the Bench comprising Justices S. Ravindra Bhat and Dipankar Datta has held. 

ON Thursday, the Supreme Court ordered the immediate premature release of a convict undergoing a life sentence who has already spent 35 years of incarceration, including eight years of remission earned by him.

A Bench comprising Justices S. Ravindra Bhat and Dipankar Datta passed the Order to this effect holding that the exclusion of prisoners who have served extremely long periods of incarceration from the relief of premature release crushes their spirit and instils despair in them

It also signifies the society’s resolve to be harsh and unforgiving, the Bench held.

The Bench added that the idea of rewarding a prisoner for good conduct is entirely negated by such exclusion.

The Bench was ruling on a petition filed by convict Joseph under Article 32 of the Constitution of India. He was sentenced to life imprisonment under Sections 302 and 392 of the Indian Penal Code(IPC), providing punishment for murder and robbery respectively.

The Bench noted that as per the Rules governing the premature release in Kerala, a life sentence is deemed to be 20 years of incarceration.

Allegations against the convict 

On September 16, 1994, Joseph had gone to his sister-in-law (the deceased victim)’s place of work, and on the false pretext that her mother was seriously ill and had been admitted to the hospital, taken her away with the permission of the in-charge of the convent where she worked.

The prosecution’s case was that he had her walk along the railway line and at a desolate place, allegedly raped and robbed her of the ornaments she was wearing, before laying her on the tracks to be run over by a passing train.

Joseph was arrested on October 9, 1994, in connection with the case and remained in custody till the trial court acquitted him of all charges on March 23, 1996.

The high court reversed the acquittal and convicted the petitioner by its judgment on January 6, 1998, for the offences punishable under Section 302, 376 (punishment for rape) and 392 IPC.

The high court sentenced him to life imprisonment for the offence under Section 302, and rigorous imprisonment of seven years on each count of Section 376 and 392 IPC, which were to run concurrently.

However, the Supreme Court, on April 27, 2000, set aside the conviction under Section 376 IPC and confirmed the conviction and sentence under Sections 302 and 392 IPC only.

On the premature release

Joseph’s case was considered by the advisory committee or jail advisory board under the prevailing Rules, namely Kerala Prison Rules, 1958 and Kerala Prisons and Correctional Services (Management) Rules, 2014 on nine occasions, of which on three the board had recommended his premature release.

However, the state government had rejected his request on all three occasions.  It was the rejection dated September 1, 2022, which Joseph challenged before the Supreme Court.

The state government contended in the Supreme Court that while considering the proposal for premature release of prisoners, the consistent stand now being adopted by the government is that persons involved in the murder of women and children and persons convicted in offences relating to Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO) cases shall not be granted premature release.

Since the petitioner was involved in the murder of a woman, his premature release was rejected by the government in accordance with the above stand.

Disapproving the state’s rejection of the premature release, the Bench noted that the advisory board includes the director general of Prisons and Correctional Services as chairman, the superintendent of prisons as member secretary, and the district collector, district and sessions judge, commissioner of police or district police chief, district probation officer, and three non-official members appointed by the government as members.

This diverse board consisting of relevant stakeholders, after having taken a holistic view of the petitioner’s case, recommended his premature release on three different occasions: January 10, 2017, February 26, 2020, and March 7, 2022.

Yet, the state government has, without assigning any reasons which could have perhaps demonstrated individual consideration of each case recommended, simply rejected the same all three times (July 6, 2019, April 22, 2021, and September 1, 2022). This is patently unsustainable and warrants intervention of this court,” the Bench held.

The Bench also commented on a Kerala government’s Order issued on June 6, 2022.

This Order excludes certain categories of convicts from the purview of premature release based on the nature of the crime which include persons who are sentenced for life imprisonment for offences against the security of the State and persons who are sentenced for life for murder along with rape of a child below 16 years of age charged with or without POCSO. 

For some other categories of offence, the Order provides for a minimum of 25 and 20 years of actual imprisonment before the case of the convicts can be considered for premature release.

Commenting on the exclusion, the Bench said: “Blanket exclusion of certain offences from the scope of grant of remission, especially by way of an executive policy, is not only arbitrary, but turns the ideals of reformation that run through our criminal justice system on its head.”

The Bench underscored that the penological goal of reformation and rehabilitation are the cornerstone of our criminal justice system rather than retribution.

The impact of applying such an executive instruction or guideline to guide the executive’s discretion would be that routinely any progress made by a long-term convict would be rendered naught, leaving them feeling hopeless and condemned to an indefinite period of incarceration,” the Bench held.

The Bench also observed that the practical impact of a guideline which bars consideration of a premature release request by a convict who has served over 20 or 25 years based entirely on the nature of crime committed in the distant past would be to crush the life-force out of such an individual altogether.

Click here to read the Judgment.