Conditions for early release from prison get thumbs up

SINGAPORE - Five MPs on Monday rose in support of amendments to the Prisons Act, which will make inmates' early release for good conduct conditional on their not re-offending.

While praising the changes, which combine tougher deterrent measures with a structured programme to ease higher-risk inmates back into society, the MPs raised concerns such as the adequacy of infrastructure and manpower.

Opening the debate on Monday, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said the measures mark a "paradigm shift" in Singapore's approach to aftercare, or the process of reintegrating ex-inmates into society.

He noted that over 80 per cent of those in prison are repeat offenders, though the prison population fell from 17,000 in the early 2000s to about 12,500 last year.

To address this, the new Conditional Remission System (CRS) requires that inmates released early for good conduct not commit an offence while in remission.

The remission period refers to the length of the sentence not served by the inmate due to early release.

If they commit an offence while in remission, the courts will impose a sentence for the new offence, and can also give an additional sentence for re-offending.

The extra jail time will be capped at what remains of the original sentence from the time the new offence is committed.

Currently, inmates with good conduct can be released after serving two-thirds of their sentences, with no conditions imposed upon their release.

Noting that the remission system has not changed since the mid-1950s, Mr Masagos said the CRS brings Singapore in line with practices in other jurisdictions such as Canada and Hong Kong.

Under the CRS, those released early will be issued a Conditional Remission Order (CRO) lasting from the day of their release to the end of their sentence.

Ex-inmates given CROs but who are deemed to be at higher risk of re-offending will be placed on the Mandatory Aftercare Scheme (MAS).

This is the second measure the Bill introduces, and it provides a structured aftercare system of up to two years. There are three phases: A halfway house stay, home supervision and community reintegration.

Inmates on the MAS, including drug and serious crime offenders, will be supervised more closely and given enhanced counselling and case management.

About 1,700 of the 7,000 inmates released with CROs each year will be placed on the scheme.

Mr Masagos said it seeks to ease the transition from the prison environment to society, which can be especially tough for those who lack family support, accommodation and stable employment.

Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) lauded the mix of deterrence and compassion, "tough" and "tender", in the two main prongs of the Bill.

But he was one of three MPs who asked whether the current aftercare infrastructure is ready for the MAS, which will require more halfway houses and counsellors.

He also sought to clarify the definition of "minor" and "major" breaches of mandatory aftercare, as the latter can lead to the offender being sent back to jail for the rest of his remission period.

Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) praised an amendment allowing inmates imprisoned for at least 20 years to be considered for remission, even if they have not reached the two-third mark. Their cases will also be reviewed annually, placing them on par with those on life imprisonment.

But she called for greater clarity on how such cases are reviewed.

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