‘What Is Achieved By Keeping Reformed Convict In Prison Forever?’: Supreme Court Orders Release Of Prisoner Who Spent 26 Years In Jail

The Supreme Court today ordered the release of a convict who had spent nearly 26 years in prison, asserting that the denial of premature release violated fundamental rights protected under Article 14 (Right to Equality) and Article 21 (Right to Life). The Court emphasized the need to consider the rehabilitation and reformation of inmates who may have drastically transformed during their time behind bars.

“Excluding the relief of premature release to prisoners who’ve served extremely long periods of incarceration not only crushes their spirit and instills despair but signifies society’s resolve to be harsh and unforgiving. The idea of rewarding the prisoner for good conduct is entirely negated”, observed the bench comprising Justices S Ravindra Bhat and Dipankar Datta.

The bench was considering a writ petition filed under Article 32 of the Constitution by a prisoner named Joseph (currently aged 65 years) who had been lodged in a prison in Kerala since 1998 after being convicted for the murder and robbery of a woman.

Justice Bhat, who pronounced the judgment, said that the case related to the plea for compassion and a reevaluation of the treatment of long-serving inmates.

The Court observed, “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 recognizes the wrongness of what they’ve done, no longer identifies with it, and bears little resemblance to the person they were years earlier”.

The Court observed that insistence on such long sentences will result in a situation where the convicts die within the prison walls, never seeing freedom, for the crimes which they have committed years ago.

The petitioner, whose case was heard under Article 32, had been initially charged with rape and murder of a woman in 1994. In 1996, the trial court acquitted him. Howver, in 1998, the High Court reversed the acquittal and convicted him for the offences under Sections 302(murder) and 392(robbery) of the Indian Penal Code and sentenced him to undergo life imprisonment. The Supreme Court also upheld the conviction and sentence in 2000.

The petitioner’s quest for release faced repeated denials by the government, particularly in 2017 and 2020, despite recommendations from the advisory board. In 2022, a government order further restricted premature release, stating that those convicted of murder involving women and children or murder with rape would not be entitled to such relief.

The petitioner’s counsel in his plea had contended that his case should be considered based on the policy on remission which existed at the time of his conviction in 1998.

He submitted that “the continued incarceration without extending the benefit of premature release is against statutory rules(1958) and violative of Art. 14 and 21. Moreover, similarly situated persons were granted benefits from 2000-2016″. The petitioner also raised the ground of discrimination, contending that persons who committed similar offences were released.

The judgment emphasized the necessity of considering factors such as good behavior and rehabilitation in the evaluation of prisoners’ release.

The court opined “The insistence of guidelines obdurately not to look beyond the red lines drawn by it and the continued in denial to consider the impact of prison good behavior and other relevant factors to ensure that such individual has been rid of the likelihood of causing harm results in violation of Art. 14.”

The Court referred to the 1958 rules, which explicitly stated that life imprisonment was deemed to be 20 years of incarceration, after which prisoners were entitled to premature release. Additionally, the Court also cited National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) guidelines, which recommend release after serving 25 years, even for heinous crimes.

The Court further observed that asking the petitioner to approach the remission advisory board again will be a “cruel outcome” considering his long period of incarceration.

“The grand vision of the rule of law and the idea of fairness is then swept away at the altar of procedure which this court has repeatedly held to be a handmaiden of justice”, observed the Court while ordering his immediate release.

In light of the above, the Court allowed the petition and disposed of the pending applications.

(To be updated when the judgment is uploaded)

Case title: Joseph v. State of Kerala

Citation: W.P.(Crl.) No. 520/2022

For petitioner: Advocate Adolf Mathew, Advoate-on-Record Sanjay Jain,

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