The Supreme Court has set aside a plea seeking direction to state governments to stop the influx of undertrials to prisons and implement orders of the Apex Court in an earlier case ( Re: Contagion of COVID-19 Virus in Prisons and Arnesh Kumar v. State of Bihar). The bench comprising Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde, Justices A.S. Bopanna and V. Ramasubramanian gave the petitioners’ liberty to file a fresh plea with concrete facts.
The petition was filed by Ameya Bokil and Surjana Bej, legal researchers working in the field of prison reforms, and were represented by Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves.
Hearing the matter, CJI Bobde said the bench finds the arguments extremely strange. It said if the petitioners believe there has been a contempt vis-a-vis the Arnesh Kumar case, it should file a fresh petition with concrete facts.
The petitioners had submitted that the apex court in an earlier case (Re: Contagion of Covid19 Virus in Prisons) had directed each state/union territory to constitute a high-powered committee to determine the class of under trial prisoners who can be released on interim bail. The court entrusted discretion to HPC for determining the class of prisoners. It also noted that such a decision should be guided by the following factors:
● Directions contained in para no.11 in Arnesh Kumar v. State of Bihar, (2014) 8 SCC 273;
● Nature of the offence;
●Number of years the convict has been sentenced for;
● The severity of the offence the under trial has been charged with and facing the trial for; and
● Any other factor as the committee may consider relevant.
Following these orders, high powered committees were constituted in all the states and passed directions setting parameters for the release of both under-trial prison inmates as well as convicts. However, despite the efforts of the HPCs, the overall prison population did not come down significantly and the number of infected prisoners kept increasing in prisons all over the country.
Moreover at the same period in which the prisoners were released from prison, the police forces in several states continued to arrest people and in fact, started indiscriminately arresting people at a higher rate, with little introspection about whether that would negate the efforts to de-congest the prisons. As a result, despite the best efforts of the HPCs in some states like. Delhi, Maharshtra, M.P., Punjab, etc.the population of the prisons increased.
The petitioners urged the court to pass directions to restrain the police from making arrests of persons accused of offences carrying a maximum sentence of seven years in accordance with the decision of the Supreme Court in Arnesh Kumar v. State of Bihar case.
They further prayed seeking directions to grant bail/extend the release of all prisoners granted interim bail by taking into account the recommendations of the HPCs and to extend the release of all prisoners granted interim parole, and also consider cases for premature release.