The key principles governing any sentence meted out in the criminal courts of Singapore are rehabilitation, proportionality, deterrence and prevention. For young offenders in general, and adults in certain specific circumstances, a rehabilitative sentence is often the punishment of choice.
As a general guideline, probation, reformative training and community-based sentences are rehabilitative sentences. Imprisonment and caning are more punitive and deterrent in nature.
This article seeks to discuss the situations within which young offenders and adults may or may not deserve rehabilitative sentences in Singapore.
Rehabilitative Sentences for Young Offenders
Young offenders are those aged 21 and below at the time of the commission of the offence and at the time of sentencing.
Rehabilitation is the first port of call for the judge who deals with a young offender, as opposed to deterrence and proportionate punishment. Young offenders are afforded more lenient rehabilitative sentences instead of imprisonment because of 2 main factors, as follows:
- Young offenders do not have the full cognitive maturity of adults at the time of the commission of an offence. They are thus considered less blameworthy than adults and more deserving of rehabilitation, so that they may be reformed and learn from their mistakes.
- Young offenders are in their formative years and are thus more easily reformed. They are also perceived to be more receptive towards a sentence which guides them on the right path.
Rehabilitation is the Primary Sentencing Consideration for Young Offenders
A relevant case to show the application of rehabilitation as the primary sentencing consideration for young offenders by the courts is the case of Public Prosecutor v Koh Wen Jie Boaz  SGHC 277, a young offender was already under probation for two offences when he committed the offences in question. He pleaded guilty to one charge of vandalism, one charge of theft and three charges of criminal trespass. The initial sentence was probation. On appeal, however, the High Court sentenced him to reformative training instead. The High Court did actually acknowledge that there was a need for deterrence because the offences were committed by someone who was already under probation. Nevertheless, the High Court held that rehabilitation remained the main sentencing consideration because he was a young offender. Reformative training was thus imposed as it satisfied both the sentencing aims of deterrence and rehabilitation.
In Serious Cases, Rehabilitation May Not be Appropriate for Young Offenders
Even though rehabilitation is the first port of call, being a young offender is not a free pass. There are circumstances where despite the age of the offender, other sentencing considerations such as proportionate punishment and deterrence may take precedence over rehabilitation. These are circumstances where:
- The offence in question is a serious one (for example, rape or murder);
- The harm caused is severe;
- The offender is recalcitrant and hardened; and/or
- The conditions make rehabilitative options unviable (for example, when the offender refuses to undergo a rehabilitative sentence).
2 relevant cases which show that despite the general rehabilitative approach towards young offenders, more punitive sentences may be meted out in serious cases are as follows:
- In See Li Quan, Mendel v Public Prosecutor  SGCA 61, a 17-year old offender was convicted of robbery, rape and theft in dwelling. He committed the offences together with 2 other co-offenders to steal money from sex workers. They requested the services of sex workers at one of their residences, and while one offender posed as a customer, the other two offenders would either extort money from the victim by pretending to be loan sharks, or steal money from the victim while she was showering. The young offender in this case was sentenced to a total of 7 years’ imprisonment and 15 strokes of the cane. The Court decided that deterrence took precedence over rehabilitation given the gravity of the offences and the harm caused.
- In Ng Jun Xian v Public Prosecutor  3 SLR 933, a 20-year old young offender met the victim in a club and persuaded her to rest at a hotel. In the hotel room, he sexually assaulted her by digitally penetrating her and attempting to rape her. While he was on bail, 2 weeks later, he committed another offence of riotous behaviour. A day before he turned 21, he pleaded guilty to and was convicted on 3 charges of sexual assault by penetration, attempted rape, and behaving in a riotous manner, with 2 other charges taken into consideration for sentencing. Although he was found suitable for reformative training, the District Judge imposed an imprisonment term with caning. The Judge held that notwithstanding the offender’s young age, the nature and manner in which the offence was committed were sufficiently serious to displace rehabilitation as the dominant sentencing principle. On appeal, the High Court agreed with the District Judge and enhanced the sentence to 8 years and 6 months’ imprisonment and 6 strokes of the cane, once again in view of the grave circumstances of the offence as a whole.
Rehabilitation for Adults
Unlike the sentencing considerations for young offenders, the principles of deterrence and proportionate punishment should generally be given more weight than rehabilitation for adult offenders.
Reformative Training is not available as a sentencing option for adult offenders. Community-Based Sentencing may be imposed if the requirements are satisfied. Even though probation may be applied to adult offenders, it is only allowed if 2 requirements are satisfied – the offender demonstrates an extremely strong propensity for reform, or where there are other exceptional circumstances that warrant probation.
In PP v Siow Kai Yuan Terence  SGHC 82, Sundaresh Menon CJ articulated the law on this issue. The Courts will look at 2 main factors when deciding whether or not to impose a rehabilitative sentence, as follows:
- The offender’s propensity to reform
- True desire to change: The court will look at the totality of the offender’s conduct to decide whether he has demonstrated a true desire to change. This includes genuine and early expressions of remorse, surrendering to the authorities, cooperation with the investigative process and the authorities, pleas of guilt and also voluntary compensation and/or restitution to victims.
- Conducive environment/factors: The court will consider favourably a strong familial and social support system for the offenders, including family background, recourse had to counsellors and other therapists, involvement in positive external activities, etc.
- Risk factors: The court will also look at non-conducive factors, factors which may lead the young offender further down the path of error and crime. This may include the presence of a bad circle of friends and peers, a drug habit, gang affiliations, etc.
- The nature/gravity of the offence
- Despite strong indicators of the offender’s propensity to reform, the court may nevertheless place more emphasis on deterrence and proportionate punishment instead of rehabilitation if the nature of the offence was so serious that a rehabilitative sentence would be considered unsuitable.
Exceptional Circumstances Where Rehabilitation Takes Priority for Adult Offenders
The Courts have a discretion in sentencing adults, to allow for rehabilitation in exceptional circumstances, especially where there the offender was acting under a psychiatric condition.
In the case of PP v Goh Lee Yin  1 SLR(R) 824, probation was imposed upon a 25-year- old offender who suffered from kleptomania. The offender had shoplifted, was sentenced to probation, and terminated from her employment while on probation. She then committed theft again in breach of her probation. The High Court imposed a new probation term instead of imprisoning her. The Court stated that rehabilitation was generally the primary consideration for adult offenders who committed offences while suffering from psychiatric disorders which contributed to the offence/s. The High Court also stated that rehabilitating such offenders would “advance the greater public interest in helping” such offenders, so as to prevent reoffending. However, the High Court was careful to qualify this rule by stating that this did not mean that all offences committed due to a psychiatric disorder would result in rehabilitation being the paramount consideration.
Everybody makes mistakes, and some of us commit criminal offences. Despite the overarching duty of the courts to mete out punishment on offenders, rehabilitation and rehabilitative principles are often an important consideration in any legal judgment.
At IRB Law, we have a panel of battle-hardened and skilled criminal lawyers who know how best to defend you and attempt to secure lighter sentences, which very often involves rehabilitative sentences.
If you or your loved one are in trouble with the law, do contact us for a consultation as soon as possible. Our lawyers are able to advise you on your matter, including the sentencing regime for that particular offence in question, and how best to present your case so as to secure a lighter sentence with the court’s leave.