In a recent engagement session on criminal justice, youths in Singapore shared their thoughts on rehabilitation, proportionate punishment and justice.
In the past year, several cases involving sexual harassment and assaults in Singapore’s school settings have come to the fore.
From online petitions to public furore expressed on social media, cases involving individuals such as National University of Singapore (NUS) student Monica Baey and dentistry student Yin Zi Qin have sparked a national conversation on Singapore’s criminal justice system and rationales behind judicial sentencing.
In a bid to address these concerns and explore youths’ perceptions on these issues, the National Youth Council (NYC), Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and Ministry of Law (MinLaw) jointly held a Youth Engagement Session on criminal justice last Saturday (Sep 19). This Zoom session was part of a two-part engagement session with youths on the topic and took place following an Instagram Live discussion with Parliamentary Secretary Rahayu Mahzam.
These were some major learning points from the two-hour session:
Key principles of Singapore’s justice system
In his welcome address, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong addressed public sentiments behind the case involving NUS dentistry student Yin Zi Qin, noting that some called for harsher sentencing while others called for the institution to expel Mr Yin.
Mr Tong highlighted the three key principles of the justice system in Singapore.
Firstly, he emphasised the obligation to ensure that the justice system protects the vulnerable.
Citing examples like the amendment of the penal code that would apply higher maximum sentences for offences committed against a victim who is in close or intimate relationships with the offender, as well as the criminalisation of voyeurism in January this year, Mr Tong stressed the importance of protecting vulnerable groups and increasing accountability.
He also raised the importance of enhancing the fairness of the judicial process by ensuring that victim crimes are handled sensitively. He brought up the amendment of the Criminal Procedure Code, which introduced a prohibition on questions asked about victims’ sexual history during cross-examination if not relevant to the charge, as one example. This was designed to protect victims and avoid inflicting unnecessary secondary humiliation or distress on them, while concurrently limiting the scope of discussion solely to the matter at hand.
Lastly, Minister Tong underlined the principle of striking a balance between rehabilitation and punishment in our justice system. As attested by recent events, this has been a contentious topic, where the bounds of delineation between the two require further discussion and consideration.
In a similar vein, Mr Tong identified three main areas of the current sentencing framework that the MHA and MinLaw were reviewing, which would also serve as trigger points for the breakout discussions with youths in the following section: The adequacy of the penalties for hurt and sexual offences, the factors which should be considered during sentencing (including the extent to which educational background or academic qualifications is relevant or irrelevant), and the proportionality of punishments for different types of offences.
Main takeaways from youth discussions
During the breakout room discussions, participants engaged in comprehensive discussions on topics that explored the purpose of rehabilitation, whether rehabilitative sentencing options such as community-based sentences should be the principal consideration for adult offenders, and the extent to which recent reforms to the criminal justice system ensure deterrence, proportionate punishment and rehabilitation.
While the details of the breakout room discussion were kept private given their sensitivities, the groups reconvened towards the end of the engagement session to round up their key discussion points.
The role and pertinence of rehabilitation
The participants affirmed rehabilitation as an important principle in sentencing, particularly for younger offenders. However, they also asserted the need for this consideration to be weighed against context, such as the severity of the offence.
Moreover, while the participants agreed that rehabilitation should be considered in cases involving adult offenders even if other sentencing principles like deterrence were the principal considerations, they also expressed that determining who exactly falls into the category of “adults” is a difficult and complex issue that could require further consideration.
Another consideration would be exploring ways to increase acceptance of rehabilitation amongst the public, such that the integration of ex-offenders willing to mend their ways would be more easily achieved.
The role of the media in influencing public views and sentiments
The media plays a prominent role in shaping public perceptions and their understanding of the rationale behind the courts’ decisions. However, some participants felt that the media has sensationalised some of these cases instead of providing more nuanced reporting to reduce misconceptions surrounding particular sentences and case decisions.
For instance, plenty hold the perception that the educational and socio-economic background of accused persons may assist them in receiving lighter sentencing. While participants acknowledged that one’s social status and circumstances can indirectly influence their case such as by providing conditions that are conducive for reformation, they also pointed out that the courts have stated that one’s educational qualification is an irrelevant factor in judicial decisions.
Ultimately, there was a general consensus that the media should be aware that based on the framing of their reports, stereotypes could be reinforced and misunderstandings of the criminal justice system could be created. A suggestion was also made for journalists to partake in training sessions or discussions with judges to understand the decisions behind certain cases, so that journalists will be able to report on cases more accurately.
The role of society and the influence of the judicial system over our social fabric
While it is often convenient to point fingers at specific groups and demand greater efforts from them, participants also suggested that all of us can play a role on a wider societal level. Furthermore, aside from holding more conversations such as these on the criminal justice system, stronger support systems could also be provided to victims throughout court proceedings.
At the end of the session, Mr Tong stressed the need for proper access to justice and assured participants that their discussion points would be taken into consideration during their review of current sentencing frameworks and guidelines.
He said: “[Views from society] play a part in shaping the kind of justice system, and therefore the kind of society, that we live in. [We will continue] to encourage civic participation through platforms like these, but I also feel we can go further… we must look at the outcomes – it must be outcome driven. And we want to keep this conversation with Singaporeans going and really not just on the criminal justice system, but also on broader issues in society.”
For more information on the engagement session held last Saturday, click here.
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