Political will is crucial to reform India’s criminal justice system
In an acknowledgment that the more than a century-old system of prisons in India needs repair, the Supreme Court, late last month, formed a committee on prison reforms. Headed by former Supreme Court judge, Justice Amitava Roy, it is to look into the entire gamut of reforms to the prison system. But this is not the first time that such a body is being set up, examples being the Justice A.N. Mulla committee and the Justice Krishna Iyer committee on women prisoners (both in the 1980s). While marginal reforms have taken place, these have not been enough to ensure that prison conditions are in tune with human rights norms. The offshoot of all this is growing numbers of prisoners and the woeful incapacity of governments to build more and larger prisons. The question often asked by governments is, in these days of extreme fiscal stress, why should state resources be diverted to a ‘negative exercise, whose benefits are dubious’? This is why jail officials are often asked to ‘somehow manage’ with existing modest facilities. There is a popular view that in order to reduce prison populations, proven non-violent offenders could be dealt with differently. But it is frustrating that no consensus has evolved across the world on this relatively uncomplicated issue. White collar crime has assumed monstrous proportions but there is no reason why we should continue to lock up offenders instead of merely depriving them of their illegal gains. Devising swift processes of attachment of properties and freezing of bank accounts are alternatives to a jail term. There are legal impediments here, but these can be overcome by ensuring a certain fairness in the system, of the state taking over illegally acquired wealth. The argument that not all gains made by an economic offender are open is not convincing enough to opt for incarceration over punitive material penalties. In India, progress has been made in freezing ‘benami’ holdings of major offenders even though it may not be a 100% effective step of cleaning up. But these are the first steps towards making economic crimes unaffordable and unattractive for the average offender. Another complaint against prisons is the brutality and venality of prison officials, again common across the world. A solution will be a point to ponder over for the Justice Roy Committee. Finally, improving prison conditions has no political leverage. Just as humane prisons do not win votes, the bad ones do not lose votes for any political party. As long as there are no stakes here for lawmakers, one can hardly hope for model prisons, where inmates are accommodated with due regard to their basic human needs and are handled with dignity.