India’s criminal justice system has been plagued recently by corruption and overpopulated prisons, and has faced international criticism for its failure to adequately prosecute and punish rapists. Unlike the other countries I have looked at thus far in this blog, India’s culture have been primarily influenced by a religion that is not Christianity, so I think it will be interesting to see if and how that difference has resulted in differences in the criminal justice systems.
There are many issues with the Indian police force. There are only around 1.5 million police officers to protect a population of 1.2 billion. That evens out to about 130 officers per 100,000 people, meaning India has one of the lowest police to citizen rates in the world. The officers are also poorly paid, so many of them have little choice but to accept bribes in order to put food on the table. The combination of being overworked undercompensated, and having little opportunity for advancement has resulted in many officers becoming apathetic. Many female rape victims have been silenced because police refused to take action and allowed her suspected rapist to intimidate her into being quiet. There is also frequent political interference. Politicians can transfer and punish police officers at will, and that threat, combined with bribes, results in blatantly political arrests. One rape victim said, “I have no faith in the police. If you have money or connections, you can get justice. If you don’t, forget it.”
Similar problems plague the courts. There are only 15.5 judges per 1 million people in India, compared to over 100 judges per million in the United States. Because of this, there is a massive backlog of cases. At the end of 2013, there were 31,367,915 active cases in India. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, if every single judge in India worked literally nonstop (without breaks for food or sleep) and closed 100 cases each hour, it would still take over 35 years to clear the backlog. It’s so bad that people often try to avoid the courts whenever possible because it can take decades to resolve even the simplest cases. They set up “fast-track courts” to try to deal with this problem, and met moderate success, though there have been questions of the fairness of the trials and “quality of the verdicts.” Judicial corruption is also an issue for many of the same reasons that police corruption is: overwork due to how few judges there are.
While people arrested in India are guaranteed a lawyer in their trials, there is no such guarantee for “remand court,” where bail is set. And since the vast majority of people going through the system can’t afford counsel, most of them are kept in police custody without the magistrates even saying a word. Meanwhile, most of the small minority who can afford counsel at this stage are able to secure their release until trial. Regardless of the financial status of the accused, magistrates spend no time questioning them, and instead make their decisions based solely off of statements made by the accused’s lawyer (if there is one).
Like in the rest of the Indian criminal justice system, a prisoner’s experience in prison depends largely on who they know and how much money they have. Prisoners who could not afford a lawyer for the remand court are held in “lock-ups” in police stations. The lock-ups are small, unsanitary and overcrowded, and beatings are the norm. In 2011, 70% of the people held in Indian prisons hadn’t even been convicted of a crime yet. “VIP” prisoners, on the other hand, have much better conditions. Contraband like food, alcohol and even cell phones can be smuggled in with relative ease. White-collar criminals can continue their illegal actions in jail and continue doing “business.” Some of the richer prisoners even hire the poorer ones to do menial jobs for them.
When I decided to write about India for this blog, I already knew that corruption and police apathy were a big problem for its criminal justice system, but I had no idea about the other issues it faces. The most striking thing to me was how backlogged the courts are. From the perspective of an American, where we try to deal with trials and other court cases as soon as we can get to them, it’s almost inconceivable to me that even relatively simple cases can take decades to finish, and that 70% of prisoners haven’t even been convicted yet.
The state of the criminal justice system in the United States may not be nearly as bad as that of India, but there are still parallels that can be drawn. One parallel is the trust of the police forces. Police in the U.S. are much more trusted than those in India, but it is extremely difficult to be less trusted than Indian police. India should remind us that the police in the U.S. need to be held accountable for their actions, and should enforce our laws justly. The situation with Indian courts is a reminder of the importance of due process and the right to speak with a attorney even before police questioning. The state of Indian prisons should show us the problems with allowing our prisons to become overcrowded, and the importance of making sure our prison guards don’t take bribes.