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More options in sentencing
Thu, May 20, 2010
my paper

By Sia Ling Xin

COMMUNITY-BASED sentencing - which lets low-risk offenders live in the community while serving their sentence - will not result in more people being prosecuted, Law Minister K. Shanmugam reassured the House yesterday.

The "decision to prosecute will be based on all the relevant facts", he said.

He was responding to a fear voiced by Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim that more people would be hauled to court as sentences meted out seem less severe.

Allowing for community- based sentencing, along with other proposed changes to the Criminal Procedure Code, was passed in Parliament yesterday.

As a result, courts now have more options in sentencing criminals, which would allow punishments to better match the offence, Mr Shanmugam said.

For example, offenders with mental illnesses could be sentenced to undergo psychiatric treatment under the Mandatory Treatment Order, instead of being jailed, while others could do community work under the Community Work Order.

In response to Madam Ho Geok Choo's (West Coast GRC) question on whether the public would perceive community sentencing as a "softening" stance on crime, Mr Shanmugam said that it was limited to low-risk offenders who would not have to undergo mandatory jail terms, and it was not for those who have committed serious crimes.

Ms Ellen Lee (Sembawang GRC) wanted to know if the sentences would be served out of the public eye, as some of the options were meant to prevent "moral stigmatisation".

But that is not the main aim of community-based sentencing, said Mr Shanmugam.

In fact, shaming might be "an integral part" of the Community Work Order, like when litterbugs are ordered to clean up in public, under the Corrective Work Order, he said.

Yesterday, some MPs also called for the proposal on the prosecution and defence exchanging information before trials to be applied to all trials.

Under the new law, this procedure, known as discovery, will be required for all criminal cases in the High Court and most of the offences tried in district courts.

For cases in the magistrates' courts, the parties can choose whether they want the process to apply.

Mr Shanmugam noted that the district and magistrates' courts deal with about 250,000 cases a year, and most cases handled by the magistrates' courts are minor offences.

In those cases, discovery might not be essential and might be too huge a burden if made compulsory, he said.

lingxin@sph.com.sg


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