Commentary: Is anything less than a jail sentence just a slap on the wrist?
Imprisonment is a grave punishment for those who commit serious crimes, but alternative sentences like probation and community sentences can have a real impact on reoffending rates in less serious cases, says Deputy Public Prosecutor Senthilkumaran Sabapathy.
SINGAPORE: Sentencing has been in public consciousness lately following the CNA documentary Inside Maximum Security, which provided a rare glimpse of life in Singapore’s prisons.
By sharing the challenges that inmates face, as well as striking stories of personal redemption, the documentary highlighted how imprisonment is both a grave punishment and a powerful tool for turning around the lives of those who have committed serious crimes.
The effectiveness of Singapore’s prisons in punishing and rehabilitating serious offenders is also backed by data. The two-year recidivism rate of inmates fell again in 2021 and was the lowest in 30 years.
LOOKING BEYOND PRISON
Many of us assume that punishment for crime necessarily means a prison sentence and that any non-custodial sentence is “soft”.
But, for less serious crimes, there are other important sentencing options available to the Singapore courts besides a prison term.
When community sentences were introduced in 2010, Minister for Law K Shanmugam said in Parliament that not every offender should be put in prison. Imprisonment carries serious psychological and social consequences for the offender, as the CNA documentary vividly showed.
Those effects extend to the offenders’ family members. According to a study by the Ministry of Social and Family Development and the National Council of Social Service published in 2020, the children of convicted parents are about three times more likely to have contact with the criminal justice system.
The study also noted that children fared significantly worse when the parent is sentenced to a custodial rather than a non-custodial sentence. This is where alternative sentences come in.
WHAT ARE ALTERNATIVE SENTENCES?
In Singapore, there are three forms of alternative sentences: Probation, reformative training and community sentences.
Probation places the offender under the supervision of a probation officer for up to three years, with various conditions like curfews and mandatory rehabilitative programmes. It is usually reserved for offenders under 21.
Reformative training is also for young offenders and requires them to be placed in the reformative training centre – a form of prison for youths where they are kept separate from adult inmates and undergo a regimented rehabilitative programme, followed by long-term supervision in the community.
Community sentences are punishments that include community service or work orders; mandatory treatment orders, which require offenders to undergo treatment for a psychiatric condition that contributed to the offence; and day reporting orders, where offenders report to a prison correctional officer for monitoring, counselling and rehabilitation. Also included are short detention orders, where offenders are detained in prison for up to 14 days but do not receive a criminal record unlike conventional imprisonment.
WHEN ARE ALTERNATIVE SENTENCES APPROPRIATE?
There are two main categories of cases where Singapore courts have usually found alternative sentencing appropriate. The first is in cases where the courts prioritise rehabilitation, such as those involving offenders under 21 and those with mental disorders.
Singapore courts recognise that it is in society’s interest that young offenders are kept out of prison and given an opportunity to grow into productive members of the public. Likewise, offenders with mental disorders are generally less culpable and more likely to remain crime-free if their underlying conditions are treated.
An example is the 2020 case of Haziq Syamim Esa, who stole an SCDF ambulance and drove it to his girlfriend’s condominium while suffering from a schizoaffective disorder. He was sentenced to a 24-month mandatory treatment order to treat his mental disorder.
The second category comprises less serious crimes for which an alternative sentence is a proportionate punishment. Alternative sentencing in such instances achieves justice while avoiding unintended consequences of a prison sentence, including the stigma of being an ex-inmate, loss of employment and alienation from the family and community.
The 2016 case of Teo Chang Heng provides an example. While separated from his wife, Teo deliberately used his car to collide into another car that his wife’s new boyfriend was driving. Following the collision, he turned himself over to the police and voluntarily paid for the damages. No one was injured.
The court observed that Teo had a clean record and had acted out of character. He was sentenced to a 10-day short detention order and 120 hours of community service. The court emphasised that the short detention order should not be perceived as a soft option as it resulted in incarceration.
In Haziq and Teo’s cases, an alternative sentence was appropriate for achieving justice and rehabilitation, while avoiding the longer-term negative consequences of a prison term.
JUST A SLAP ON THE WRIST?
A common concern is whether alternative sentences are merely a slap on the wrist that do not sufficiently deter crime. Studies in other countries have shown that public understanding of crime is largely punitive and prison-centric.
But alternative sentencing can have a real impact on reoffending rates. In 2018, it was shared in Parliament that offenders sentenced to community sentences tend to have a lower rate of recidivism than the general prison population.
Research in other jurisdictions similarly suggests that alternative sentences work. An international study in 2019 found that recidivism rates in individuals receiving community sentences are typically lower in comparison to those reported in released prisoners.
However, a crucial lesson from other countries is that the success of alternative sentencing depends on the programmes being well designed, adequately funded and professionally implemented.
Alternative sentences also do have punitive value because they remove aspects of offenders’ freedom that most of us take for granted.
Even less onerous alternative sentences, such as community service orders, take away many hours of personal time, usually over weekends. And more severe alternative sentences such as a lengthy probation term may be the more dreaded penalty compared to a short prison sentence, especially for young offenders who value their independence.
Such orders may involve uncomfortable conditions like evening curfews, electronic monitoring through ankle tags, prohibitions on alcohol consumption and requirements for offenders to reside in a home or hostel.
ALTERNATIVE SENTENCES PREMISED ON THE POSSIBILITY THAT OFFENDERS CAN CHANGE
In assessing an alternative sentence, its impact must be weighed against that of the sentence the offender would otherwise receive.
As noted in Parliament in 2018 by then Senior Minister of State for Law, Ms Indranee Rajah, “Ultimately, we have to accept that there is some risk created when imposing a community sentence but this must be weighed against the alternative, which is likely a relatively short sentence of imprisonment."
A significant point is that alternative sentencing options must be applied in a principled and proportionate fashion. They are not appropriate for grave crimes of violence and sexual abuse, where anything less than a prison sentence would depreciate the seriousness of the offender’s conduct.
Alternative sentences are also important for another fundamental reason. They are an institutional expression of the belief in the possibility of change and that the community should support those who have offended.
Criminal offenders can and should be rehabilitated, even as they face the consequences of their wrongdoing.
The growth of alternative sentencing in recent decades is part of the development of Singapore’s criminal justice system – and the broader maturity of our community – as we evolve into a more just and inclusive society that strives to leave no one behind.
Senthilkumaran Sabapathy is a Deputy Public Prosecutor and Deputy Senior State Counsel in the Attorney-General’s Chambers, and the author of the Singapore Academy of Law publication, Beyond Prison: Alternative Sentencing In Singapore. The article is written in his personal capacity and the views expressed are not necessarily those of AGC or SAL.