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Just punishment or too harsh?
Chong Chee Kin & Teh Joo Lin
Sat, May 24, 2008
The Straits Times

IN PRISON right now, there are seven youths with no inkling of when they would be released. They were aged below 18 when they committed their crimes.

That is what it means to be detained at the President's pleasure: You enter the slammer not knowing when you will get out. Young people who commit capital crimes that would have sent them straight to the gallows had they been older can be sentenced to such a term. It is provided for by Singapore's Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), which states that criminals below 18 cannot receive the death penalty.

Last month, Muhammad Nasir Abdul Aziz was sentenced thus after being convicted of killing his lover's husband. He was 16 when he committed the crime last July.

A prisons spokesman confirms there are seven such detainees now. No names were revealed but reports since 1993 indicate that youths detained in the past included three boys who fatally attacked a 15-year-old boy with wooden poles, a 14-year-old boy who stabbed a woman in the heart, as well as a teen couple found with 19.7kg of opium. Two of the nine reported cases in the past were girls who were detained at the President's pleasure.

Their prison regime is not very different from that of the other inmates, a prisons spokesman said. 'Depending on their conduct and behaviour, they can also work in workshops within the institution or be placed in vocational and educational programmes. They are also given opportunities for family contact through regular visits.'

The prisons authorities have not disclosed the shortest and longest terms served by youths. The last time they revealed such details was in a December 2001 report. Between 1969 and 2001, 10 young prisoners were granted clemency. The shortest detention was for seven years, the longest, 26. In the same report, the authorities said 14 youths were detained at the President's pleasure at the time.

In response to a query from The Straits Times, a Ministry of Home Affairs spokesman said such cases are reviewed annually.

'The person's conduct and progress are monitored and reviewed annually. When the offender is found suitable for release, a recommendation will be made to the President, who may then direct the release of the offender,' the spokesman said.

When a youth is released depends on his behaviour and how well he responds to rehabilitation, the prisons spokesman said, adding that there are 'established processes and guidelines' for the review. Any inmate can also petition the President for clemency.

The indefinite period of incarceration has prompted some in the legal fraternity to ask if the punishment is too heavy.

The provision in the CPC that allows for such detention was inherited from colonial times. In Britain, youths below 18 who commit murder are sentenced to detention at Her Majesty's pleasure.

Minimum jail terms - meted out at the judge's discretion - are set for each offender. These must be served before a parole board can consider releasing them.

In Singapore's case, no minimum or maximum incarceration period needs to be specified, as National University of Singapore law don Chan Wing Cheong noted. But he pointed out there is another sentencing option under the Children and Young Persons Act (CYPA) for those who commit heinous crimes. Under this law, a youth who commits murder can get a definite sentence of imprisonment.

Associate Professor Chan feels that a review is necessary in view of what he sees as a 'conflict between sentencing options'. He even suggests abolishing detention at the President's pleasure.

In a letter to The Straits Times Forum Page last month, he wrote: 'A defined term of imprisonment offers more hope to young persons and therefore assists in rehabilitation.'

Four years ago, then-state prosecutor Paul Quan wrote a paper on a 15-year-old student jailed for killing a woman at the urging of her ex-husband.

Mr Quan, now a magistrate, argued that jailing the boy for an indefinite period was a severe penalty in sharp contrast to the CYPA, which allows a judge to exercise discretion in deciding an appropriate sentence.

Such discretion, he argued, was potentially appropriate in view of the 'strongly worded' concessions the trial judge made about the boy's nature. Mr Quan's article, written in his personal capacity, was published in the Singapore Academy of Law Journal.

Veteran criminal lawyer Subhas Anandan agrees that sentencing options should be reviewed. And the time to do it would be now, since the CPC is being reviewed this year.

Mr Subhas, president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, said: 'From the inmate's point of view, not knowing exactly when he could be released is a form of punishment in itself.'

Dr Teo Ho Pin, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Law and Home Affairs, however, thinks indefinite detention for youths should stay.

It sends out a 'strong deterrent message' to the young, he said. If they commit severe crimes, they should not expect to escape harsh penalties.

'This has to sink in well, rather than the notion that they will be protected. They are not 11 or 12 years old. They should know what they are doing,' he said.

cheekin@sph.com.sg

joolin@sph.com.sg

 


COMMIT THE CRIME, DO THE TIME

Indefinite detention for youths should stay. It sends out a 'strong deterrent message' to the young. If they commit severe crimes, they should not expect to escape harsh penalties.

DR TEO HO PIN, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Law and Home Affairs


 

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