More young offenders given counselling

Scope of programme widened so more teens can avoid being taken to court

A growing number of young offenders are being sent for counselling to stay out of trouble instead of being taken to court.

Nearly 770 aged between 10 and 19 who committed minor offences were put on the Guidance Programme last year, up from around 530 in 2010.

Those who complete the programme successfully are usually let off with a police warning. The rising numbers on the programme have coincided with a fall in youth crime in Singapore.

The programme, which usually lasts six months but may be extended to a year, was expanded last year to include more offences.

Previously, it was mostly for those guilty of minor shoplifting, theft and other "property" or "miscellaneous" offences, such as deliberately breaking a neighbour's flower pot or swiping towels hanging along corridors in Housing Board blocks.

Generally, those picked for the programme did not injure anyone, caused minimal damage and did not gain much from the criminal act, said a spokesman for the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC), which oversees the scheme.

Since last year, any case deemed "not in the public interest to prosecute" by the AGC could be directed to the programme on a case-by-case basis.

But the programme is not an option in cases where prosecution is considered necessary as a deterrent, such as when a young person is a runner for a loan shark or takes part in armed assault or rioting.

The programme is managed by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and run by voluntary welfare organisations whose staff counsel the young people individually and in groups to help them realise what they did was wrong and turn over a new leaf.

In a six-month pilot programme that ended in March, young offenders were first assessed by ministry officers at the police station to find out their family background, school disciplinary and academic records, and if they were involved in gang activity.

The MSF officers then sent a report, through the police, to the AGC on the offenders' suitability for counselling and therapy instead of prosecution. The school's input was also sought.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Agnes Chan said measures such as the Guidance Programme are critical in helping young offenders to mend their ways and give them a second chance.

"Rather than make them end up with the social stigma of a criminal record, we try to help by going to the root of their offending behaviour," she said.

More than nine in 10 participants have stayed away from crime since attending the programme, according to a three-year study which tracked those put on it in 2008.

Hadi, 19, had two brushes with the law before he was put on the programme. At 15, he was arrested with a group of friends when one of them stole a can of Coca-Cola from a provision store. The next year, he threw a chair off the fifth floor of his school in a fit of rage. Luckily, no one was injured.

Anger management, counselling and group therapy helped him quell his inner demons.

"I learnt to think of the consequences of my actions before acting impulsively," he said. "And that's helped a lot."