The Straits Times says

Protecting minors suspected of crime

Most teenagers taken in for police questioning would likely feel afraid, whether or not they have done anything wrong. A new scheme to have adult volunteers accompany minors during police interviews should therefore reassure parents that the interests of their children are protected even as the law takes its course. It comes a year after a 14-year-old fell to his death hours after police questioning over an alleged molestation. Like those with intellectual or mental disabilities, persons under 16 deserve the protection of society when they face the power of the law. Other jurisdictions have similar Appropriate Adult schemes in place. In Britain and parts of Australia, a parent, guardian or social worker must sit in when the police question people under 18.

Singapore does not allow parents, teachers or anyone who knows the young person to be present at the interview as that might hinder the investigation process. Instead, young persons here will be accompanied by independent trained volunteers. What matters is that these volunteers are neutral and do not help either the young persons or the police. If a minor is taken to the police station from school, someone familiar to him, such as a teacher or a counsellor, will accompany him in the police car. The police are also to inform the minor's parents as soon as possible.

Figures released by the Home Affairs Ministry help shed light on the challenge of finding the right balance between public and private interests. The police arrested more than 7,000 young suspects between 2011 and 2015 for offences that include rioting. That group would include some who were innocent and others who were first-time offenders, but also repeat offenders involved in serious crimes. The police would want to question the last group without delay so as to track down accomplices, for instance. There is thus a need to uphold the public interest in solving and preventing crime, while balancing the interests of young suspects.

It is apt that the scheme being rolled out is the result of an inter-agency effort and that the National Council of Social Service is involved in its implementation. On its part, the Education Ministry has pledged to work out follow-up steps when such cases arise, and these would include monitoring the child's well-being and offering counselling support. That will be a source of help to parents who are shocked to learn that their child is suspected of a crime. The role of schools is crucial because they are, after all, the institution with which most parents would be most familiar. Still, at the heart of it all is the young person, whose resilience and willingness to face up to wrongdoing is perhaps the key factor in deciding the outcome in such cases. The sad truth is that if the young suspect is unable to accept what has happened, no scheme can save him.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2017, with the headline 'Protecting minors suspected of crime'. Subscribe