In the criminal justice system of Singapore, once an offender has pleaded guilty or the courts have found an accused person to be guilty of an offence beyond reasonable doubt, to ensure that the defendant receives a fair sentence, the courts take into account arguments that are advanced by both the prosecution and the defence, based on these four main principles that guide the sentencing process:

  1. Retribution/ Punishment: the defendant is punished according to his culpability and the seriousness of the crime;
  2. Deterrence: both the defendant and others are discouraged from engaging in similar behaviour;
  3. Prevention/ Incapacitation: the defendant is locked up so that further harm will not be caused by this said defendant; and
  4. Rehabilitation: to consider whether the defendant is capable of reform and to see which regime would help the person be reformed

Although the Penal Code may prescribe mandatory types of punishment, or minimum and maximum punishments to be imposed, the courts still have some discretion to consider the aggravating and mitigating factors related to the specific offence committed.

Sentencing Reform – Alternatives to Incarceration

Traditionally, the main sentencing outcomes are incarceration and financial penalties. However, in some countries, like the United States, where there is over-reliance on the criminal justice system or where lengthy prison terms are meted out, prisons would be operating above capacity and at significant cost to the country.

Sentencing reform may occur through a number of ways. One way would be to reduce the prison terms through penal legislations, particularly for those with no history of serious drugs or violence offences. Another way would be for inmates to earn reduced sentences by participating in rehabilitation programs like job training or drug treatments.

Faced with the same overcrowding prisons situation, Singapore Prisons Service has taken proactive steps to move from a custodial role into more rehabilitative work. The initial inspiration for Singapore to take this journey came because although the prisons were a safe institution with zero escape rate, there was a high recidivism rate with many ex-offenders returning to prison.

Within the organisation, the Singapore Prisons Service has developed a rehabilitation program which matches inmates with their rehabilitation needs. Prison officers were trained to shift their perspective from prison wardens to “Captain of Lives”, whether they now guide ex-offenders to restart their lives beyond the prison walls.

In addition, work had to be done to shift public perception of ex-offenders so that they can be successfully reintegrated into society. The result of this is the Yellow Ribbon Project which helps ex-offenders rebuild stable and crime-free lives.

Watch this video to see how the Captains of Lives work to rehabilitate inmates at Singapore’s only women’s prison.

Restorative Justice: Beyond Reform and Rehabilitation

A sentencing principle that is gaining popularity beyond the traditional ones in criminal justice systems stated above, is that of restorative justice. It is not a recent concept, but one that is rooted in traditions from Arab and Western civilisations, as well as in some of the Eastern religions like Hinduism.

Restorative justice cannot be easily defined, but rather involves the balancing of the offenders’ rights and the victims’ needs. It also considers the community’s need to be protected as well as the need to rehabilitate the offender. Processes involving restorative justice are largely non-custodial, i.e. not involving incarceration and include mediation between victims and offenders or community restorative circles which help the offender successfully transit back to the community.

In Singapore courts, probation is frequently ordered by judges in place of custodial measures, particularly for younger offenders. This is aligned with restorative justice because it aims to rehabilitate the offender with the involvement of the offender’s family and community, and to reintegrate the offender. Although longer probation orders are being imposed in Singapore, there are many (84%) who complete their probation orders.

Questions for further personal evaluation: 

  1. What is your perception of ex-offenders? Once they have been released from their custodial sentences, does it matter what offence they have committed in the past? 
  2. In some countries like South Korea, chemical castration (through the administration of drugs which reduce male hormones) is imposed for repeat sexual offenders, particularly where the victims are minors. Do you agree with such sentences being meted out? Why or why not?

Useful vocabulary: 

  1. custodial’: relating to or requiring imprisonment
  2. recidivism’: the tendency or likelihood that a convicted criminal would reoffend

Here are more related articles for further reading:

  1. The Atlantic: Iceland keeps its teenagers off drugs by creating ‘natural highs’ through sports, music and martial arts

““Why not orchestrate a social movement around natural highs: around people getting high on their own brain chemistry—because it seems obvious to me that people want to change their consciousness—without the deleterious effects of drugs?”

By 1992, his team in Denver had won a $1.2 million government grant to form Project Self-Discovery, which offered teenagers natural-high alternatives to drugs and crime. They got referrals from teachers, school nurses and counsellors, taking in kids from the age of 14 who didn’t see themselves as needing treatment but who had problems with drugs or petty crime.

“We didn’t say to them, you’re coming in for treatment. We said, we’ll teach you anything you want to learn: music, dance, hip hop, art, martial arts.” The idea was that these different classes could provide a variety of alterations in the kids’ brain chemistry, and give them what they needed to cope better with life: some might crave an experience that could help reduce anxiety, others may be after a rush.

At the same time, the recruits got life-skills training, which focused on improving their thoughts about themselves and their lives, and the way they interacted with other people. “The main principle was that drug education doesn’t work because nobody pays attention to it. What is needed are the life skills to act on that information,” Milkman says. Kids were told it was a three-month program. Some stayed five years.

  1. Rolling Stone: Would forcing sex offenders to undergo chemical castration be a violation of the US Constitution?

Chemical castration is highly controversial, and government-mandated chemical castration even more so. There are myriad potential negative health side effects of the medication (it has been linked to infertility, as well as an increased risk of osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease). Elizabeth Letourneau, PhD, director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, says that from a policy perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to require sex offenders to take such medication.

“Chemicals that reduce sexual arousal can be useful for people who acknowledge they need help controlling their arousal and they want this type of help and they think it’ll help them, whether they’re incarcerated or not,” she says. But this ultimately applies to a “small percent” of sex offenders, many of whom are not even “preferentially” sexually attracted to children in the first place. Mandating chemical castration is also based on the assumption that many sex offenders will go on to abuse children again, which Letourneau says is incorrect. One 2018 study assessing the risk of recidivism among adults convicted of sex crimes over 25 years found a rate of 18%, which she says is lower than that of other types of crimes.  “This idea that for every person in prison for a sex crime, you need to castrate them or they’re gonna go out and commit more horrible offenses, is a gross generalization and demonstrates a great misunderstanding of the problem,” she says. 

Additionally, there are obvious ethical concerns related to mandated chemical castration, regardless of the severity of the crimes an offender may have committed. “We find this disturbing, we find this a step backwards, and if it is enforced and a judge actually mandates it, we may have to consider pursuing litigation,” says Dillon Nettles, policy analyst for the ACLU of Alabama. Nettles said it is the ACLU’s position that mandated chemical castration violates the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits the state inflicting “cruel and unusual punishments” on offenders.