SC refuses to entertain plea raising issue of overcrowding in jails

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New Delhi, Feb 11 (PTI) The Supreme Court Thursday refused to entertain a plea which raised the issue of overcrowding in jails amid the COVID-19 pandemic and sought direction to restrain the police from arresting people accused of offences carrying a maximum sentence of up to seven years.

A bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde was informed that people accused of petty offences were being arrested in violation of the apex court judgement in 2014 which said that no arrest be made unnecessarily in relation to offences punishable by an imprisonment of seven years or less.

“Where are the concrete cases which allege breach of Arnesh Kumar judgement (of 2014),” the bench, also comprising Justices A S Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, asked senior advocate Colin Gonsalves who was appearing for the petitioners.

Gonsalves told the bench that people were being arrested during the COVID-19 pandemic for petty offences by the police in several states.

The bench told Gonsalves that the petitioner can file contempt petition in the case in which the court had delivered the 2014 verdict. “You better come with concrete cases,” the bench said, adding, “Why don't you withdraw it and file a fresh petition”.

Gonsalves told the bench that he would withdraw the plea with liberty to file a fresh petition.

“Counsel for the petitioners seeks permission to withdraw the writ petition with liberty to file a fresh petition. Permission is granted. The writ petition is dismissed as withdrawn with liberty as prayed for,” the bench said in its order.

The top court was hearing a petition filed by two Bhopal residents who had sought directions to the authorities to publish and upload on their website data on prison population every month to enable its monitoring in public interest.

The petition, filed through advocate Satya Mitra, referred to the apex court’s March last year order directing all the states and Union Territories to constitute high-level committees to consider releasing on parole or interim bail prisoners and undertrials for offences entailing up to seven-year jail term to decongest prisons in the wake of coronavirus pandemic.

“The petitioner is seeking directions to various state governments to take cognizance of the continued threat of COVID-19 in prisons by taking immediate steps to stop the influx of undertrials to prisons and implement orders of this court..,” it said while referring to the 2014 verdict as well as the orders passed last year by the court which had taken suo motu cognisance of overcrowding in prisons across the country.

The plea, while referring to National Crime Records Bureau Prison Statistics India 2019 Report, claimed that several states and UTs including Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra have had a “glaring occupancy rate”.

“The petitioners submit that they carried a closer study of around 34,000 arrest records from all districts of Madhya Pradesh made public by the Madhya Pradesh Police...as well as lock down related First Information Reports from ten districts of the state from March 22, 2020 to May 31, 2020...and found a very high rate of FIRs and arrests for minor low-risk lockdown related offences, minor low-harm/no-harm IPC offences as well as minor offences under the Madhya Pradesh Excise Act of 1915 and Public Gambling Act of 1867,” the plea said.

It said there is a need to outline a long-term strategy to prevent spread of COVID-19 in prisons across the country. PTI ABA SA