Beyond Prison: Alternative Sentencing in Singapore
By Senthilkumaran Sabapathy
Beyond Prison: Alternative Sentencing in Singapore is a timely publication which sheds significant light on alternatives to imprisonment, with a focus on reformative training, probation and community sentences.
Alternative sentencing is an area which is often overlooked and neglected, despite its tremendous potential to advance our criminal justice system. In the early years of our country’s development, the focus of our sentencing approach was on deterrence and retribution.
The Singapore criminal justice model was first analysed by the then AG and former CJ Chan Sek Keong in his two seminal works.1Chan Sek Keong, “The Criminal Process – The Singapore Model” (1996) Sing L Rev 431; Chan Sek Keong, “From Justice Model to Crime Control Model”, speech at the International Conference on Criminal Justice under Stress: Transnational Perspectives, Golden Jubilee Celebrations of the Indian Law Institute (24 November 2006); Chan Sek Keong, “Rethinking the Criminal Justice System of Singapore for the 21st Century” in The Singapore Conference: Leading the Law and Lawyers into the New Millennium @ 2020 (Butterworths, 2000) at p 45. These works clearly espoused the philosophy of the Singapore criminal justice model with the underlying values that remain relevant even in modern Singapore. In 1965, Professor Koh in his study of sentencing in Singapore, observed that “the dominant penal philosophy of our judiciary is a retributionist one … our judges generally give greater emphasis to retaliatory and quantitative retribution and deterrence than to other objectives such as the needs of the individual offender and how best to reform him.”2“The Sentencing Policy and Practice of the Singapore Courts” (1965) 7 Mal. L.R. 291, at p. 294. Deterrence and retribution continued to be important elements in sentencing practice in Singapore through the 80s.3See Peter English, “Sentencing in Singapore” (1981) 23 Malaya Law Review 1, where an extensive research on the sentencing practice and philosophy of the courts confirmed the view that deterrence and retribution played predominant roles in a large number of cases.
Over time, it was realised that these principles were inadequate to tackle the high rate of recidivism, which Singapore faced in the 1990s. Therefore, the courts and the prison service, with the support of the Government, adopted rehabilitation as an equally vital penal objective. I was part of this development and was personally involved in the setting up of the Community Court in 2006 as well as the proposals to introduce community-based sentences (CBS) in 2010.4https://www.unafei.or.jp/publications/pdf/RS_No79/No79_28VE_Reddy.pdf At that time, many policy makers and judges, used to our traditional punitive approach, were reluctant to fully embrace community-based alternatives in sentencing. The journey took time and effort.
There has been much emphasis in recent times on restorative justice. In recognition the courts have started to incorporate restorative justice processes into their sentencing philosophy. These processes are largely non-custodial in nature and include victim-offender mediation, family group conferencing, restorative or community conferencing, community restorative committees and restorative circles which assist the offender in his or her successful transition back to the community.
I am tremendously heartened that the jurisprudence on alternative sentencing has matured to the point where a full-length publication on the topic is now possible. The author has done a great service to highlight this important area through his careful and considered research, which will benefit judges, practitioners and students of criminal law and practice.
The book is organised into four parts. Part 1 considers the general principles on criminal punishment and alternative sentencing. I highlight three insights from this first part of the book which will be particularly valuable for practitioners. The first insight is that there is a need to carefully balance rehabilitation and proportionality when considering alternative sentencing, as the author elegantly explains. He provides an example of a young offender who commits a minor offence for whom the nature of the offence may point towards a short probation term as a proportionate punishment. However, the offender may have multiple underlying issues which call for a long and intensive term of probation in the interests of rehabilitation. As the author rightly notes, the sentencing court will need to carefully consider and balance the offence and the offender’s circumstances to ensure that the appropriate sentence is imposed. The second insight is the need to re-examine our assumptions about the kind of cases for which an alternative sentence may be appropriate. As the author expounds in Chapter 3, there are many minor crimes for which imprisonment may be too harsh but a fine too lenient – and an alternative sentence like CBS may be worth considering in these “intermediate” cases. Third, as the author correctly emphasises, there are limitations to alternative sentencing. In particular, such sentences are not appropriate for serious crimes for which an imprisonment term is invariably warranted.
Part 2 contains three chapters which set out the law on probation, reformative training and community sentences, respectively. The summary of the law in these chapters is clear and comprehensive. The author provides analytical clarity and structure to the consideration of these sentencing options. This part of the book would therefore be of great benefit to judges and practitioners dealing with these sentences. I particularly welcome the chapter on community sentences, which are still relatively new and often not fully understood by many.
Part 3 contains specific chapters on alternative sentencing for young and mentally disordered offenders. The author by his perceptive observation accurately points out that these are the two main categories of cases where rehabilitation, and therefore alternative sentencing, often assume prominence. The chapters on these topics bring together the various threads from the previous chapters in a focused manner and would quickly assist anyone dealing with a case involving such offenders.
Part 4 of the book is a standalone chapter with useful insights on possible future developments in this area, including guidelines to promote the principled use of alternative sentences and legislative changes that we may anticipate.
Overall, I wholeheartedly commend the endeavour that was undertaken to produce this book, and highly recommend it to all criminal judges, lawyers and students. It contains both thought-provoking analysis as well as practical reference material on alternative sentencing, an area which will only grow in importance in the years to come. As there is now a considerable number of cases where community based sentences have been imposed, it is perhaps time to undertake an in depth study to also assess the effectiveness of community based alternative sentences.
Information about the book may be found here.
|↑1||Chan Sek Keong, “The Criminal Process – The Singapore Model” (1996) Sing L Rev 431; Chan Sek Keong, “From Justice Model to Crime Control Model”, speech at the International Conference on Criminal Justice under Stress: Transnational Perspectives, Golden Jubilee Celebrations of the Indian Law Institute (24 November 2006); Chan Sek Keong, “Rethinking the Criminal Justice System of Singapore for the 21st Century” in The Singapore Conference: Leading the Law and Lawyers into the New Millennium @ 2020 (Butterworths, 2000) at p 45.|
|↑2||“The Sentencing Policy and Practice of the Singapore Courts” (1965) 7 Mal. L.R. 291, at p. 294.|
|↑3||See Peter English, “Sentencing in Singapore” (1981) 23 Malaya Law Review 1, where an extensive research on the sentencing practice and philosophy of the courts confirmed the view that deterrence and retribution played predominant roles in a large number of cases.|