The long delay in our criminal justice system from arrest to bail is turning out to be the biggest punishment for undertrial prisoners, whose population accounts for nearly 80% of the jails in the country, Chief Justice of India (CJI) NV Ramana said on July 16. “We need a holistic plan of action, to increase the efficiency of the administration of criminal justice,” he observed.

“In our criminal justice system, the process is the punishment,” said CJI Ramana, while inaugurating the 18th edition of the All-India Legal Services Meet in Jaipur. “From hasty indiscriminate arrests to difficulty in obtaining bail, the process leading to the prolonged incarceration of undertrials needs urgent attention.”

The CJI’s comment came close on the heels of a significant Supreme Court decision on July 11, which called upon the Centre to consider framing a new Bail Act to facilitate the grant of bail and “check on the tendency of investigating agencies to act like vestiges of the colonial era by indulging in unnecessary arrests”.

The judgment had noted the need to streamline the grant of bails as the majority of undertrial prisoners are not required to be arrested in cognisable offences punishable with less than seven years of the sentence.

Expressing concern over the burgeoning undertrial population, CJI said, “A grave issue affecting our criminal justice system is the high population of undertrials in our prisons. Out of 6.10 lakh prisoners in India in 1378 prisons, around 80% are undertrial prisoners.”

However, he clarified that aim should not be limited to allowing undertrial prisoners to be released early. “Rather, we should question procedures which lead to such prolonged incarceration in huge numbers without a trial,” he said.

The Chief Justice described the prisoners as one of the most vulnerable sections of the society. “Prisons are black boxes,” he said. “Prisoners are often unseen, unheard citizens.”

Ramana said that their prolonged separation from family and society could lead to a detrimental impact on their mental health.

Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju, who was also present on the dais, along with other Supreme Court judges and Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot, shared similar concerns.

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