Supreme Court seeks report from jails across country

New Delhi: Days after the emotional speech of President Droupadi Murmu flagging the plight of poor tribals languishing in jails in petty offences despite bail, the Supreme Court Tuesday directed prison authorities across the country to provide details of such prisoners within 15 days to NALSA for formulating a national scheme for their release.

The president had, in her maiden Constitution Day address on November 26 at the Supreme Court, highlighted the plight of poor tribals of her home state Odisha besides Jharkhand, saying they remain incarcerated despite getting bail for lack of money to furnish the bail amount or arrange sureties.

Departing from her written speech in English, Murmu had spoken in Hindi to urge the judiciary to do something for the poor tribals, noting those accused of serious offences walk out free but these poor inmates, who may have gone to jail for slapping someone, have to spend years on end before they are released.

Justice S K Kaul was among those seated on the dais with Chief Justice DY Chandrachud, when the president narrated her experience of meeting several undertrial prisoners as an MLA in her native Odisha and later as the governor of Jharkhand.

A bench of Justices Kaul and Abhay S Oka on Tuesday directed the jail authorities to submit the details of such prisoners to the respective state governments which will forward the documents to the National Legal Service Authority within 15 days.

The bench said the jail authorities will have to submit such details as the names of undertrial prisoners, charges against them, date of the bail order, what bail conditions were not met and how much time they have spent in jail after the bail order.

“At the inception, we flagged the issue of detenues/Undertrial prisoners, who continue to be in custody despite being granted bail but could not fulfill the bail conditions. Each jail authority of the country has to convey to their state government the details which will be forwarded to NALSA for formulation of a national level scheme to provide assistance to such prisoners,” the bench said in its order.

Advocate Devansh A Mohta, who is assisting the court as amicus curiae, said the Delhi State Legal Service Authority (DSLSA) has a scheme to assist such undertrial prisoners languishing in jail despite being granted bail.

The bench said, “In Delhi, these kinds of cases may be less but could be more where financial means become a challenge.”

It asked advocate Gaurav Agrawal, appearing for NALSA, to explore all possibilities for formulating a national scheme and suggest ways for dealing with this situation and execution of the bail orders.

The top court was hearing a plea by a life convict named Sonadhar, who has been in custody for 18 years and sought premature release.

On September 15, the top court had said convicts who have completed 10 years of their life sentence and whose appeals would not be heard in the near future by the high courts should be enlarged on bail unless there exist cogent reasons to deny the relief.

The top court said it needs to keep the objective of decongesting the jails in mind in the case of convicts whose appeals have been pending for years against conviction and are not likely to be heard in the near future by the high courts due to pendency of cases.

It had said its endeavour is two-fold –first, convicts having undergone more than 10 years imprisonment, unless there exist cogent reasons to deny them the relief, they should be enlarged on bail. Second, identification of cases where convicts have completed 14 years of custody, in which event, a case can be referred to the government for considering premature release within a fixed time period irrespective of pendency of their appeals.

The top court had said if a detenue has already served 14 years of sentence in a murder case, then there are norms prevalent in each state for examination of such cases for premature release.

“However, it appears that legal assistance to do so after expiry of 14 years has not been forthcoming in many cases, including the present one (of petitioner Sonadhar). We do feel that this aspect needs attention and the respondent State and for that matter other States must put their house in order in respect of this aspect,” the bench had said and sought the assistance of NALSA.

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