Call for courts to tailor options for mentally ill offenders

The courts should be given more power to tailor sentences for offenders with mental disorders, some of whom may not be eligible for community-based sentencing currently, said Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) yesterday.

While offenders with disorders such as depression or schizophrenia are provided treatment, others with "more challenging psychiatric illnesses" such as antisocial personality disorder, paranoid personality disorder or mental retardation may not receive adequate help, he added.

He filed an adjournment motion on the topic in Parliament yesterday, calling for more community-based support for such offenders.

Said Mr Murali: "The lack of treatment for, or appropriate management of, the psychiatric condition of such offenders would mean that they may exit prisons without the additional social and emotional skills to manage life, with the result that the risk of reoffending is not lessened."

Currently, offenders with mental disorders can be given a Mandatory Treatment Order (MTO) during sentencing. However, those offenders who are given a "guarded prognosis" - meaning that psychiatric treatment alone is unlikely to change their behaviour - are not eligible for an MTO. Such offenders are typically given a jail term, said Mr Murali.

He suggested that other types of community sentencing options be made available, like mandatory in-patient treatment while serving a jail term, with monitoring continuing even after the sentence has been served, as practised in the United Kingdom.

In response, Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah said offenders who have mental disorders may not always qualify for an MTO. This does not mean they are not given treatment in jail, she noted. Those with mental health conditions are "seen regularly by a prison psychiatrist".

Mr Murali also said young offenders with mental disorderscould be put in a separate rehabilitation programme supported by a "structured, community- focused legal framework and budget". This would complement conditional warnings that are given to such offenders in lieu of prosecution, he added.

He suggested that an inter-ministerial panel look into the issue. Simply imposing conditions on them will not help ensure they do not reoffend, he said. "Often, the offender's family alone is simply unable to cope; especially a broken family."

He also spoke about how the court is curtailed from handing out community sentences when offences have a mandatory or specified minimum sentence, which may result in situations where community sentences are not available for less serious offences.

Ms Indranee said the Ministry of Law will study his comments, adding that there are plans to expand the community-based sentencing scheme and range of offences eligible for MTOs.

The Law Ministry is also prepared to look into community sentencing for offenders who have committed less serious offences for which there is a specified minimum sentence, but she cautioned that there must be a "balanced approach", as not all crimes are suited for community-based sentencing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2017, with the headline 'Call for courts to tailor options for mentally ill offenders'. Subscribe