Teen drug suspect who died after fall from height could have had 'far better future': Faishal Ibrahim
SINGAPORE: The 17-year-old drug suspect who died from a fall from height three months after he was charged in court could have had a "far better future", Minister of State for Home Affairs Faishal Ibrahim told Parliament on Tuesday (Nov 2).
He was responding to questions by several Members of Parliament (MP) on law enforcement agencies' protocols when dealing with young suspects.
The drug suspect Justin Lee was arrested in February and charged with drug trafficking offences in June before being released on bail. He died on Sep 16 after falling from height. His mother, Ms Cecilia Ow, alleged that he was mistreated during the investigation process.
The Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) said on Oct 22 that its investigations show the suspect was treated "professionally and fairly" during investigations, with "no mistreatment" during his time in lock-up.
"I have looked at this case and asked: Why did this young person fall to his death, when he was out on bail and was staying at home? Thirty-two weeks, or about eight months after he was arrested and released? It is very sad," Associate Professor Faishal said.
"The young man could have had a far better future. The question is: How can we bring across to more of our young people, the danger of drugs? How can we also bring across to them and their families, that even if they are arrested, they will still have opportunities to reform, and the agencies will help them give up drug taking, and that there can be a good future ahead?"
Assoc Prof Faishal said authorities have been putting out this message "quite a lot" and will have to continue doing so.
"So that parents, and persons who are arrested, understand the process. You have done wrong, but that does not have to be the final word," he said.
"Our system is designed to give second chances, to help you rehabilitate. And many have succeeded."
Assoc Prof Faishal said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has changed its laws on dealing with pure drug abusers to not treat them as criminals. Instead, the focus is on getting them to change their drug habit.
"In Justin’s case, he was trafficking drugs and seems like he was also abusing drugs. But with the right help, he could also have changed. And our processes are structured to provide that guidance and help, after he is dealt with in court," he said.
"We bring in the family, into these efforts as well. Because without adequate family support, it is difficult to help the young person."
DECISION ON EXPANDING APPROPRIATE ADULT SCHEME SOON
One point that Ms Ow brought up was why Justin was not accompanied by a "trusted adult" during the interviews.
Assoc Prof Faishal reiterated that the Appropriate Adult Scheme for Young Suspects (AAYS), where a trained adult accompanies young suspects during law enforcement interviews, applies to suspects below the age of 16.
However, he noted that some MPs have asked if the scheme could be extended to suspects who are 16 and 17 years old. This will be reviewed, he said.
"There were some difficulties in expanding the scheme to suspects in this age group, and so we decided to operationalise the current process which was announced in 2017, for a period first, while we consider if, and if so how, we can deal with the issues," he said.
"We will announce our decision in the next few months, as to whether we can extend the AAYS to persons who are 16 and 17 years old."
MP Sylvia Lim (WP-Aljunied), who said Justin was her resident, then pointed out that the Children and Young Persons Act was amended in 2019 to raise the age of a young person from 16 to 18.
She asked if the MHA would agree to align its legal or procedural protections as such.
Assoc Prof Faishal replied that the ministry would first need to double its pool of volunteers to cover additional young suspects aged 16 and 17, and listed several constraints in doing this. The AAYS currently has 331 volunteers.
"Essentially, the appropriate adults are volunteers and we will need more volunteers to cover more young suspects. In order for them to come on board, we need to ... provide face-to-face training to ensure that the volunteers are well-equipped to perform their roles," he said.
"And during this current pandemic, they are constrained on conducting face-to-face training due to the safe distancing measures, hence it's not easy to ramp up the pool of the appropriate adults quickly."
If the scheme was expanded without enough volunteers, the minister said interviews could be delayed until an appropriate adult was available, adding "more strain" on the suspect being investigated.
YOUNG SUSPECTS WITH MENTAL HEALTH CONDITIONS
Assoc Prof Faishal also touched on CNB's protocols when conducting drug-related investigations involving young persons with a history of medical or mental health conditions.
If officers know that the suspect has medical or mental health conditions and would require special attention, they contact the parents or school first, if operationally feasible, before bringing the suspect in for investigations, he said.
Justin had indicated to officers during his first interview on Feb 4 that he had depression and had previously been diagnosed by the Institute of Mental Health. CNB proceeded with the interviews after considering that he was "composed and coherent" during the interviews.
"If the person is observed to be capable of being interviewed, the officers will carry on with the interview. The point is that they will use their discretion, based on their observations," Assoc Prof Faishal said.
The minister said the Home Team has worked with Agency for Integrated Care to increase officers’ awareness of mental health conditions and help them identify and respond to persons observed to have mental health issues.
Officers will check if the person has a Developmental Disability Registry Identity Card issued by the National Council of Social Service, look out for information that the person may be undergoing treatment at healthcare institutions for diagnosed mental disabilities, and observe the behavioural traits of the person.
Assoc Prof Faishal said CNB officers also undergo refresher training with case studies involving recorded interviews on how to handle young suspects and those with mental disabilities, and are required to pass an annual proficiency test.
Beyond that, the minister pointed to a separate Appropriate Adults Scheme for Persons with Mental Disabilities, which currently has 320 volunteers.
"Even if the person doesn't ask (for the scheme), and we feel that it helps in an investigation process, we will activate it and we want to make sure that the person has a fair process as part of the investigation," he said.
16 PER CENT OF ARRESTED PERSONS BELOW 18 PROSECUTED
Ultimately, Assoc Prof Faishal said that out of 9,485 persons under 18 years old arrested from 2016 to 2020, only 16 per cent were prosecuted. Justin's case falls in this minority as he was "openly trafficking", he said.
"The general approach when dealing with young suspects is to, where possible, avoid criminalising their conduct, give them a second chance, and help them in their rehabilitation," he said.
Suitable youths who have been arrested for minor offences can be referred to diversionary programmes that have a strong focus on counselling and rehabilitation, the minister said.
"Placing youth offenders on diversionary programmes allows them to be accountable for their actions and prevents disruption in other areas of development, such as education," he added.
"Justin will also have been placed on such processes after sentencing if he had been found guilty."