Seek public views in review of criminal justice system

Justice Woo Bih Li had to make a difficult decision when sentencing a young offender with mild intellectual disabilities who committed a serious crime (Teen's intellectual disability raises issue on lack of sentencing options: Judge; March 13).

Given Justice Woo's comments, it is indeed timely that Parliament is revisiting the Criminal Justice Reform Bill to make the criminal justice system more progressive.

Offenders who have an intellectual disability have certain vulnerabilities when interacting with the criminal justice system.

Although this does not take away the gravity of the harm the victim experienced, offenders with intellectual disabilities are less likely to fully understand what they are being charged with and are at risk of falsely incriminating themselves.

In response, the Appropriate Adult Scheme was set up to provide support during interviews involving detainees, victims or witnesses who may have an intellectual disability, autism or a psychiatric history.

Yet, that support does not necessarily carry through to other areas of the criminal justice system.

Once in prison, offenders with intellectual disabilities are at greater risk of abuse from other inmates and, once in the criminal justice system, these offenders are more likely to be trapped within the system.

A 10-year study by Dr Judith Cockram compared the experience of offenders with and without intellectual disabilities in Western Australia and found that those with intellectual disabilities were rearrested at nearly double the rate compared with the offenders without intellectual disabilities.

These concerns are not limited to just offenders with intellectual disabilities - offenders with invisible disabilities, such as autism, face similar challenges too.

Following a Disabled People's Association (DPA) call for feedback on this case, some in the disability field have raised concerns that sentencing an offender with an intellectual disability differently merely on the basis of disability could be discriminatory.

Instead, the DPA urges the Ministry of Law to hold a wider public consultation that looks at current sentencing options and how appropriate they are for a diverse range of offenders, including those with disabilities, as well as try to identify other areas of the criminal justice system that can be updated to be more inclusive.

Marissa Lee Medjeral-Mills (Dr)

Executive Director

Disabled People's Association

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2018, with the headline 'Seek public views in review of criminal justice system'. Print Edition | Subscribe