Convicted non-capital drug traffickers will now have their jail terms pegged to the quantum of drugs for which they are charged, instead of serving terms inclining towards the minimum 20 years.
The top court's directive underlines the seriousness with which Parliament treated the drug problem in providing for jail terms of up to 30 years or even life imprisonment together with 15 strokes of the cane.
The Court of Appeal comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Judges of Appeal Judith Prakash and Tay Yong Kwang said the current sentencing trend "does not seem consistent with the strong deterrent stance that Parliament has taken against drug offences".
"It is therefore the duty of the court to consider the full spectrum of sentences in determining the appropriate sentence," added Judge Tay on the court's behalf in judgment grounds issued on Tuesday.
In an appeal case heard by the court in January, Malaysian Suventher Shanmugam, 22, pleaded guilty to importing not less than 499.9g of cannabis and consented to a second charge being taken into consideration. He had been sentenced to 23 years' jail and 15 strokes of the cane last year, and he appealed to have the jail term reduced to the minimum 20 years.
The court dismissed his appeal, noting the sentence "could have been much more". In explaining its grounds, the court reviewed nine past cases where the amount imported stated in the charges was close to 500g of cannabis. The death penalty applies when the amount is over 500g. All but one involved jail terms in the lower half of the sentencing range, although the drug quantities involved were near the maximum range.
Number of years in jail for those convicted of importing or trafficking 330g to 380g of cannabis.
381g to 430g
431g to 500g
The court accepted that mitigating factors may justify lower sentences but this does "not detract from the overall trend of sentences being at the lower end of the range".
It said such a trend is inconsistent with the need to make the sentences proportionate to the potential harm to society as gauged from the quantities involved.
It ruled that those convicted of trafficking or importing cannabis:
- Between 330g and 380g, be jailed from 20 to 22 years,
- Between 381g and 430g, be jailed from 23 to 25 years,
- Between 431g and 500g, be jailed from 26 to 29 years.
Where the accused cannot undergo the mandatory caning because of gender or age, then a further jail term of not more than a year should be added, said the court. It explained these guidelines can be modified by the precise circumstances of each case. The sentencing range can also be applied to offences involving other types of drugs where the punishment range is the same.
The court also considered if the actual quantity of drugs involved should be relevant, in addition to the quantity stated in the charge, as they may be different.
Citing a 1995 case by then Chief Justice Yong Pung How, the court made clear "the fact that the charge has been reduced from one which would have attracted the death penalty to one which would not is not relevant to sentencing".
The new sentencing guidelines come in the wake of the debate in Parliament earlier this week on the call to review and ensure existing laws contain the "legal muscle" to deal with the drug menace.