Singapore lauded for low pre-trial remand numbers

Singapore's success in reducing its pre-trial detention population is attributed to a strong state apparatus and a qualified, experienced civil service.

SINGAPORE - Singapore's "exceptionally low" pre- trial remand numbers have been held up, together with Finland's, as a model for others to follow.

A new US-based study on the use of pre-trial detention worldwide highlights the Republic's progress in the past decade, at a time when the overuse of pre-trial detention elsewhere is a rising concern and in need of urgent reform.

Titled "Presumption of Guilt: The Global Overuse of Pre-trial Detention", the report published recently by the Open Society Justice Initiative - part of a network founded by billionaire investor George Soros - is the first global survey of the damage done by the overuse of pre- trial detention. The New York-based Open Society Foundations, the organisation that is part of a network that runs the Open Society Justice Initiative, works to shape public policy to promote democratic governance, legal and social reform.

Written by Mr Martin Schoentiech, the report argues that more than 14 million people a year are affected by the "massive and excessive" use of pre-trial detention around the world.

It also argues that the overuse of pre- trial detention affects economic well-being, public health and the rule of law. Among other things, it highlighted a case where one murder suspect was remanded behind bars in India for 38 years before being ordered to be freed by the court in 2006.

Earlier this month, in a landmark move recognising the problem of pre-trial detention, India's top court ordered its prisons to release all inmates awaiting trial who had been behind bars for half the maximum term without trial.

"Virtually every country in the world could benefit from reducing its pre-trial detention population," says the report.

It notes that European taxpayers spend some US$18 billion (S$22.8 billion) annually on keeping such inmates behind bars, while in the United States it costs on average more to detain a juvenile than the annual tuition cost at Harvard University.

"Fortunately, positive reforms are possible. Both Finland and Singapore, for example, have shown that proactive and coherent policies can limit the unnecessary use of pre-trial detention," says the report.

It attributes Singapore's success to a sustained policy initiative to curb a prison population that peaked at 18,000 in 2002, declining to 13,000 some eight years later.

It notes that the use of pre-trial detention also declined at the end of the same period, forming less than 8 per cent of the prison population, which is "an exceptionally low proportion by global standards".

While almost a third of the world's 10 million kept behind bars in 2012 were in pre-trial detention, Singapore had 8.8 per cent as a proportion of its prison admissions for that year - the third-lowest on the list.

The report also notes that Singapore and Finland shared some common features in their political and social infrastructure which keep prison numbers down.

Among the reasons are policy continuity, a strong state apparatus and a qualified, experienced civil service.

These background factors translate to clear policies and processes to deal with defendants awaiting trial in different ways, among other things, says the report.

This article was first published on September 17, 2014.
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