Number of undertrials rises during the pandemic

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Undertrial prisoners in Karnataka outnumber convicts 2-1.The number of undertrials has gone up in recent years. Most of them are migrant workers from backward classes coming from poor and downtrodden families. 

According to the latest Prison Statistics Report, 2019,  published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), nearly 70 percent of the prison population in Karnataka consists of prisoners facing trial. This percentage corresponds with the all-India percentage. 

Out of the 14,497 prisoners in all jails in Karnataka, 10,500 prisoners are facing trial.

Cecilia Davies, executive director of the Justice Initiative Foundation, which works towards rehabilitation of convicts after their release, informed The Observer: “A large portion of the undertrial prison population belongs to the marginalized and poor communities.”

 She explained: “It’s not that the bail is set too high; it’s up to the defence to inform the judge about the defendant’s economic status and convince him to bring down the bail. However, the poor cannot afford good counsel because it costs money that they don’t have.”

The rich are able to afford justice, but due to lack of economic resources, the poor languish in jails for years. On top of that, their economic condition can be attributed to “systemic casteism” where they have to resort to petty crimes to survive.

According to the NCRB report, more than a quarter of undertrials were confined to jail for more than a year without being convicted.

Another issue with the justice system is that there is no mechanism to inform the family members of the accused once they are in judicial custody. Narrating an incident, Davies said: “A woman was accused of abetment to suicide and sent to the Bangalore Central Jail for six months. Her family didn’t meet her the entire time because they received absolutely no information.”

The number of under trial prisoners has gone up drastically during the time of Covid, she added.

Priti Lata Kisku, superintendent at the Central Jail, refused to comment on the increase in the number of undertrials during the pandemic.

Reverend Doctor Francis Kodiyan, national coordinator and co-founder of the Prison Ministry of India, an organization that provides prisoners counselling, education, recreation and medical services, said: “The number of undertrial prisoners in Bangalore is larger than the number of convicts.”

Asked the reason he said the judicial system is to blame. “Trials are often dragged by changes in judges, which is why we need more fast-track courts. Those who are rich can pay bail; but ignored, poor and downtrodden people suffer in jails waiting for justice. The poor cannot afford good lawyers and are often sent to jails for petty crimes.”

Rev. Kodiyan’s organization provides accommodation to the children of prisoners, rehabilitation and jobs once they are out of prison. The foundation has units across 176 prisons in India.

India ranks 15th out of 217 countries in the number of undertrials. This number has been high for the past several years. A tardy criminal justice system is blamed for this.


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