SINGAPORE - A law to protect young offenders and vulnerable children up to age 16 is to be amended, with the age limit raised to under-18, in a move to give better care to more young people.
It will also ensure swift and better protection to abused children, help offenders reintegrate into society by allowing them to declare they have no criminal records after they complete their Youth Courts orders, as well as shield them from possible harm from being with older offenders in adult prisons.
These are among the positive outcomes in extending the age limit spelt out by Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee in Parliament on Tuesday (Sept 3), when he presented the Children and Young Persons (Amendment) Bill for debate.
The proposed change in age limit is among four areas of proposed changes to the Children and Young Persons Act, which provides for the welfare, care, protection and rehabilitation of children under 16.
The others include greater focus on addressing parent-child conflict, extending rehabilitation of youth offenders by giving older youngsters probation instead of jail, and training volunteer welfare officers to better support vulnerable children.
Said Mr Lee: "There are many reasons why youths commit offences. Sometimes it is because of challenging family circumstances, negative influences or the absence of family support.
"Young people who are 16 years and above who commit offences are tried as adults in the State Courts or the Community Court, unless they are diverted away from the criminal justice system. But studies have shown that these young persons may still not have the full cognitive maturity of adults."
The changes include the expansion of the Youth Courts' jurisdiction to hear cases of youth offenders up to age 18, except for more serious offences.
Currently, offenders who are aged 16 and older are tried as adults in the State Courts or the Community Court, unless the courts order that they receive community-based programmes instead of being punished under the criminal justice system.
With the changes, youth offenders under 18 years old will, by default, have their cases heard at the Youth Courts.
But with those who commit serious offences such as gang- or drug-related activities, unlicensed money lending or are repeat offenders, the public prosecutor has the discretion to charge the offender in either the Youth Courts or another appropriate court, like the State Courts.
"This is intended as a deterrent, that we are not soft on crimes, especially those of a serious nature, and that there are times where firmer punishment of the offender is warranted, in spite of his youth," said Mr Lee.
The proposed changes also include amending the Probation of Offenders Act for the Youth Courts to impose probation on a child below age 18, even if they are not willing to comply with the conditions of probation. Currently, the age limit is under-14.
"This addresses the current gap where some youth offenders reject probation in favour of a shorter imprisonment term, which works against the Court and the Ministry of Social and Family Development's (MSF) efforts to help such youth rehabilitate and reintegrate into society," said Mr Lee.
The Youth Courts can also decide to detain a young person at a Juvenile Rehabilitation Centre if he is under 18.
Currently, young people can go to these centres only if they are under age 16.
In an effort to provide more suited rehabilitation for young offenders and enhance safety in the Juvenile Rehabilitation Centres, which is also known as the ministry's Youth Homes, the Youth Courts will also have the discretion to order offenders aged between 14 and under-18 to undergo Reformative Training in the first instance, without going through the Juvenile Rehabilitation Centre (JRC).
This new provision "will only be for a small minority of youth offenders who are found to be so unruly that in the Court's opinion, his presence at the JRC would be disruptive to the rehabilitation of the other residents there, and he would be better managed in the Reformative Training Centre", stressed Mr Lee.
In addition, the ministry's officers working in its youth homes can use restraints such as handcuffs, leg braces and flexi-cuffs to prevent offenders from escaping or injuring themselves or others.
These would include such situations where young offenders continue to create a disturbance or taunt other residents. "Because such hostile behaviour, if not put to an end, can escalate quickly and compromise safety," said Mr Lee, adding that similar practices exist in South Korea, the United Kingdom and some Australian states.
The officers will be trained before they can use the restraints, and there will be strict guidelines, the minister added. "They will not be used as a punitive measure, but to ensure safety and security of both the youth and those around him."
Other amendments include letting a young person's criminal record be considered spent when he completes certain Youth Courts orders. This means the young person can lawfully declare he has no criminal record.
Correction note: This article has been edited for accuracy.