Holes aplenty: NCRB data points to multiple shortcomings in the criminal justice system

The National Crime Records Bureau statistics for 2018 reveal why women’s safety has returned to the forefront of the national discourse. The conviction rate in Indian Penal Code crimes has touched 50% after three decades. But the criminal justice system is still failing to up its game when it comes to crimes against women. In rape cases, the conviction rate is just 27%. Even more alarmingly, the number of rape cases where the victim was murdered shows an increasing trend. Police have claimed a high chargesheeting rate of 85% in rape cases. But courts are failing rape survivors by being able to dispose of just 11.3% of cases brought to trial.

The low conviction rate of 27.2% indicates that police cannot rest merely on a high chargesheeting rate. If those accused of rape are being acquitted in seven out of ten cases, it hints at police and prosecutors failing to put up a convincing case before judges. NCRB data also points to offenders being known to victims in a whopping 94% of cases. The implications are worrisome. As cases get delayed during trial, it becomes harder for rape survivors and their families to resist pressures mounted by the accused.

The threats faced by two rape survivors in Unnao highlighted the need for witness protection. In late 2017, a nationwide scheme was notified. But it has remained largely on paper. Another crisis area revealed by NCRB data is the 30% rise in victims being murdered after rape. It ties in with what experts have been warning us against for years – the dangers of populist legislation to award death penalty for rape. Capital punishment acts as a perverse incentive for rapists to murder their victims in an effort to destroy evidence.

In reality, the degree of legal punishment must be calibrated to correspond with the degree of crime to achieve the best results. Second, punishment must be speedy for deterrent effect. Unfortunately, fast track courts which have been proposed for over a decade as the panacea for India’s judicial woes are underperforming. These courts could dispose of just 21.5% of cases in less than a year while 42.5% of cases took over three years and 17% over five years. Ironically, the regular courts recorded better disposal rates. The idea wasn’t bad but execution failed: too few courts were initially set up and pendency multiplied. These areas must be quickly addressed for better governance and crime prevention.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.

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