SC questions rationality of continued punishment for reformed prisoners

The SC said that denying premature release to long-serving prisoners not only “crushes their spirit, and instils despair, but signifies society’s resolve to be harsh and unforgiving.”

Supreme Court of India (Photo: Getty Images).
Supreme Court of India (Photo: Getty Images).


Denying the relief of premature release to prisoners who have served extremely long periods of incarceration crushes their spirit, instils despair and signifies society’s resolve to be harsh and unforgiving, the Supreme Court has said.

The apex court said with such denial the idea of rewarding a prisoner for good conduct is entirely negated, and directed the immediate release of a murder convict who has already spent 26 years in custody.

A 67-year-old man was held guilty of killing a woman in 1994.

The man’s remission plea was considered by the jail advisory board nine times. On three occasions, the board recommended his premature release but the Kerala government rejected the proposal every time.

A bench of Justices, S Ravindra Bhat and Dipankar Datta said regardless of the morality of continued punishment one may question its rationality.

“The question is, what is achieved by continuing to punish a person who recognises the wrongness of what they have done, who no longer identifies with it, and who bears little resemblance to the person they were years earlier? It is tempting to say that they are no longer the same person.

“Yet, the insistence of guidelines, obdurately, to not look beyond the red lines drawn by it and continue in denial to consider the real impact of prison good behaviour, and other relevant factors (to ensure that such individual has been rid of the likelihood of causing harm to society) results in violation of Article 14 (equaity before law) of the Constitution,” the bench said.

Excluding the relief of premature release to prisoners, who have served extremely long periods of incarceration, not only “crushes their spirit, and instils despair, but signifies society’s resolve to be harsh and unforgiving”, the court said.

The bench noted that Rule 376 of the Kerala Prisons and Correctional Services (Management) Rules, 2014 prescribes that prisoners shall be granted remission for keeping peace and good behaviour in jail.

The man sought a direction to the state government to prematurely release him as he has been in custody (actual imprisonment) for over 26 years and served a sentence of over 35 years (including over 8 years of remission earned).

While ordering release of the convict with immediate effect, the apex court said as per the records produced by the state, the man has earned over 8 years of remission, which demonstrates his good conduct in jail.

The discussions in the minutes of the meetings of the jail advisory board are also positive and find that he is hardworking, disciplined, and a reformed inmate, the bench noted.

It said redirecting the petitioner, who has already served over 26 years of incarceration (and over 35 years of punishment with remission), to undergo consideration before the advisory board again and thereafter, the state government for premature release – would be a “cruel outcome, like being granted only a salve to fight a raging fire, in the name of procedure”.

The bench said the prison laws in India encapsulate a strong underlying reformative purpose.

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 individual altogether, it said.

Giving an example, the bench said a 19 or 20 year old individual convicted of a crime which finds place in the list barring premature release altogether would mean that such a person will never see freedom and die within the prison walls.

“There is a peculiarity of continuing to imprison one who committed a crime years earlier who might well have changed totally since that time. This is the condition of many people serving very long sentences. They may have killed someone (or done something much less serious, such as commit a narcotic drug related offence or be serving a life sentence for other non-violent crimes) as young individuals and remain incarcerated 20 or more years later,” it said.

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