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The Straits Times says

Dilemma of handling young suspects

When information about an arrestable offence is received by the police, the public would expect investigations to be done in an expeditious and thorough manner. At the same time, certain rules specified by the law come into play which regulate the powers of investigation of the police. A risk of overprotective rules is that uncooperative suspects might run circles around investigators. The public and, in particular, victims of crimes and their family members would then ask why more isn't being done to bring an offender to justice. However if rules are lax, there is a risk of being insensitive towards vulnerable suspects.

Those who are in a vulnerable position for one reason or another ought to be handled differently, of course. People with intellectual or mental disabilities and those whose judgment is impaired by illness, for example, ought to be treated with care. They might not be able to properly grasp the situation and the nature of the questioning. Young suspects deserve special attention too, given their age and lack of experience. Their handling was brought into focus by the case of 14-year-old Benjamin Lim. In January, he was found dead at the foot of the block where he lived, hours after being questioned by the police for the alleged molestation of an 11-year-old girl in a lift.

Public sympathies would lie by default with the schoolboy, with some wondering whether police questioning could have been a factor leading to his death. But earlier this month, State Coroner Marvin Bay made it clear that the police and the boy's school had acted sensitively. That should help set minds at ease with regard to this tragic case. But the broader issue is whether existing rules and guidelines ought to be recalibrated for the young. Apart from laws protecting them, like those relating to the minimum age of criminal responsibility, the main aim of the authorities is to provide early intervention for very young offenders, so behaviour does not degenerate into serious delinquency. Indeed, between 2011 and last year, just 15 per cent of juvenile suspects questioned were charged in court.

Just how young suspects are questioned is a matter calling for some judgment. While the public would expect the same rules to apply to all impartially and consistently, there will be instances when a different approach is required - for example, when there is evidence of mental or emotional vulnerability. A review of the current procedures ought to take account of the possible ways a juvenile might be vulnerable, the circumstances of a case, and also the need for police investigations to get to the truth of the matter. The presence of an appropriate adult, like a school counsellor, might be warranted at times. But whatever special treatment is recommended, what also matters is that there is sufficient justification for it and fair application among those who merit it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2016, with the headline 'Dilemma of handling young suspects'. Print Edition | Subscribe