Social workers to size up young offenders

Police, social workers to work together from next year to assess needs and rehab options

From next year, young people arrested by the police will have social workers - working alongside police investigators - to help determine and assess their background.

Prosecutors will use the information - including school work, family relationships and risk of reoffending - to decide if a young offender should be dealt with by the criminal justice system or not.

Called the triage system, it includes interviewing the offender's parents or caregiver, and will allow the offender to be quickly referred to other social services.

Announcing this on the second day of a conference for at-risk youth yesterday, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and for National Development Desmond Lee gave the example of 11-year-old "Ben", who was caught for theft.

Ben's triage officer found that he was often left alone at home, and what he needed was proper after-school supervision. So, prosecutors decided to put Ben on a guidance programme, which has counselling and enrichment activities, instead of taking him to court.

"We see that the assessment under the triage system enabled prosecutors to make more informed decisions by giving them an in-depth insight into the youth's socio-economic, psychological and social circumstances," said Mr Lee, who is also chairman of the National Committee on Youth Guidance and Rehabilitation.

The triage system was piloted from September 2012 to March 2013 at two police divisions and, from next year, will expand to all six police divisions. The $3.4 million programme will run from next year to 2020, and aims to benefit people aged 19 and below who are arrested for minor crimes such as shoplifting or fighting.

A 10-year study on youth offences will also start next year, Mr Lee said. Investigators will interview 3,300 young offenders and drug abusers between the ages of 12 and 18, as well as their parents or caregivers every year for a decade, to find out why they committed crimes, how to better rehabilitate them, and how to prevent further offences.

The study's principal investigator Chu Chi Meng said the study will look into the offenders' family, education, work background, and social interactions.

"There is a lot of value in terms of how we can understand these youth and their families, and prevent them from offending, and also help them reintegrate successfully into society," said Dr Chu, who is a senior assistant director at the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF). The MSF-led study also involves the education, health and home affairs ministries.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2015, with the headline 'Social workers to size up young offenders'. Print Edition | Subscribe