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Penalties for 3 sex crimes to go up after review, academic potential should not carry much weight: Shanmugam

Penalties for 3 sex crimes to go up after review, academic potential should not carry much weight: Shanmugam

Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam speaking in Parliament on Mar 5, 2021.

SINGAPORE: The maximum penalties for three types of sexual offences will each be increased by a year, after a review of how some sexual and violence-related crimes are sentenced by Singapore courts, Minister of Law K Shanmugam said on Friday (Mar 5).

On top of this, mitigation pleas in certain types of offences based on the offender’s educational qualifications or academic potential “should not carry much weight”, he said in a ministerial statement in Parliament. 

“You shouldn’t be able to come to court and say you have a bright future, you will go far and so on,” said Mr Shanmugam, who is also the Minister for Home Affairs.

"You can go far. But first - serve the sentence," he said. Members of the House thumped their chairs in approval at this statement.

The move comes after widespread debate over the sentencing of multiple university students for sex-related crimes, with some calling for tougher sentences.

READ: Commentary: All this anger over voyeurism but what we need is respect

The three types of sexual crimes that will have their maximum penalties increased are: Outrage of modesty or molestation, sexual activity carried out in the presence of a minor aged between 14 and 16 or showing them sexual images, as well as similar activity done in front of a minor aged between 16 and 18.

There has been a 24 per cent increase in the number of reported cases of outrage of modesty from 2016 to 2020 versus 2011 to 2015, said Mr Shanmugam.

READ: Male molest numbers continue to rise; experts say some victims struggle to report cases

As egregious cases should be dealt with more severely, the maximum jail term will be increased from two years to three years for molestation.

The maximum penalties for sexual activity in the presence of minors or showing sexual images to them - whether they fall in the age bands of between 14 and 16 or 16 and 18 - will be increased from one year to two years' jail.

"Voyeurism is not merely a thoughtless act that a young student commits in a moment of folly," said Mr Shanmugam. 

"These and other similar offences, whether committed against female or male victims, should be dealt with seriously. 

"These actions must be seen as an affront of fundamental values. There can in general be no excuses for these offences."

AGC WILL OBJECT TO REHABILITATIVE SENTENCES FOR SOME TYPES OF CASES

Mr Shanmugam added that the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) will generally object to rehabilitative sentences - such as probation - for adult offenders who commit certain types of sex crimes or crimes causing physical hurt.

The need for proportionate punishment and deterrence must take precedence over rehabilitation, said the law minister.

Mr Shanmugam said it should be clear that an offender will not receive a lighter sentence simply because he has higher educational qualifications or better prospects.

READ: More than 40,000 sign petition against NUS student's sentence in molest case

Voyeurism and similar offences committed against female victims should be dealt with seriously and there can be no excuses in general for such crimes, he said, adding that rehabilitation should not trump principles of proportionate punishment and deterrence.

Applying the new amendments to the law to past cases that have drawn public attention and debate, the law minister gave the example of a Yin Zi Qin, an NUS student who climbed into his ex-girlfriend's home with her and choked her.

READ: NUS student admits climbing into ex-girlfriend's home, strangling her

He was given a short detention order for 12 days, a day reporting order for five months with counselling and an order to complete 80 hours of community service over a year.

This was in accordance with the law at the time, said Mr Shanmugam. However, if he had committed these acts on or after Jan 1, 2020, when new Penal Code provisions kicked in, he would likely have been charged under the new offence of voluntarily causing hurt to a victim whom he was in an intimate or close relationship with.

He would have been liable for up to twice the maximum penalty for voluntarily causing hurt: Up to six years' jail, a fine of S$10,000, or both.

Under the new law, he would not have been eligible for community-based sentences as these are generally only available for offences punishable with a maximum jail term of three years.

The criminal justice system reflects the values of society, and the starting point should be that such criminal conduct should never have happened, with "no excuses", said Mr Shanmugam.

ADVISORY PANEL TO BE SET UP, GUIDE PREPARED TO EDUCATE PUBLIC

Beyond this, an inter-agency sentencing advisory panel will be set up to issue non-binding sentencing guidelines to help achieve more consistency in sentencing and better public education on such issues.

The panel will include stakeholders from the criminal justice system including the AGC, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the police and members of the judiciary.

To help the public find out more about the sentencing process, the Ministry of Home Affairs and MinLaw have prepared a guide on sentencing in Singapore, with the help of the AGC and the Law Society.

The guide explains sentencing processes in the courts and addresses questions of public interest such as what sentencing objectives are, what are the common types of sentences imposed, how a court decides what sentence to impose and what factors it takes into account.

READ: Penal Code changes to protect vulnerable victims, minors to kick in on Jan 1, 2020

The increased penalties are the latest in several amendments the Government has made over the years on sex and hurt crimes. In 2019, amendments to the Penal Code and the Protection from Harassment Act meant offenders face enhanced penalties for cases involving minors, victims in close or intimate relationships with the offender, domestic workers and physically or mentally disabled victims.

Amendments that kicked in on Jan 1, 2020, criminalised acts that have become more prevalent with technology, such as voyeurism and spreading intimate images without consent.

MEMBERS SEEK CLARIFICATIONS ON NON-ARRESTABLE OFFENCES, EDUCATION

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh asked if the ministry has considered looking at voluntarily causing hurt offences that are not arrestable in a more “variated manner". This is so that it can take "expedited action in the appropriate cases”.

Mr Shanmugam said Mr Singh’s question highlights one of the “more involved discussions that the Ministry of Home Affairs has been having, with me involved”.

He noted that Mr Singh’s intent of asking the question is that criminal law is not the best solution for these cases and it should be dealt with in other ways without undermining the rule of law.

“We agree and there are some internal frameworks for the police to try and assess that and deal with it. If the police try to deal with every single case of police report on voluntarily causing hurt, it would be an impossible situation and I don't think will be better off as a society,” Mr Shanmugam said. He added that people who are “not happy” can pursue other routes.

MP Nadia Ahmad Samdin (PAP-Ang Mo Kio) asked if the Government will consider putting in place programmes and training to better ensure trauma literacy within the criminal justice system to safeguard the interests of victims of hurt and sexual offences.

In response, Mr Shanmugam said that victim impact statements can be submitted to court so that the court is better informed about the impact of the offence on the victim and the emotional and physical trauma suffered. He added that gag orders can be applied to protect the alleged victims’ identities.

His ministry is also exploring the possibility of using video-recorded interviews with victims, then “using those videos as evidence in court in lieu of examination in chief”.

“We think that that might help reduce the victims’ trauma from having to recount again in court the ordeal that the person went through,” he said.

COMPOSITION OF PANEL

MP Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim (PAP-Chua Chu Kang) asked if the panel could be invited by the Court of Appeal to provide their views before sentencing in a particular case, something which he said happens in Australia.

“I say this so that we don't shut up any possibility of flexibility to cater to evolving societal needs and specific individual cases,” he said.

He also asked if the panel can be diverse in terms of gender and expertise, and if the panel could include victim crime support advocacy groups and criminal justice professionals.

In response, Mr Shanmugam said that diversity is a “buzz word”.

“I am a believer that you appoint the appropriate persons to the right job. This requires expert viewpoints. The guidelines from the panel must carry weight. It must have gravitas for judges to take it seriously,” he said.

A variety of viewpoints can be taken, he said, adding that non-governmental organisations and people who want specific laws or specific types of penalties to be changed will have an interest, he said.

He said that by necessity, the panel will “not be a very large” panel.  

“You must appoint a panel that is open to hearing all these viewpoints. But the panel must have the expertise to make an assessment based on the law, and what makes sense and put it across- open-minded, but an open mind is not an empty mind,” he said.

“It must also not absorb whatever nonsense that comes up, it must be able to assess what makes sense, what doesn't make sense, make an assessment, give guidelines that would carry authority and respect.”

Watch the full statement: 

Source: CNA/ll

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