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 order for more youth to receive better care.
The move will also ensure swift and better protection for abused children, help offenders re-integrate 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 that were spelt out by Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee in Parliament yesterday, when he presented the Children and Young Persons (Amendment) Bill for debate.
The prospective age limit is among four areas of suggested amendments to the Children and Young Persons Act, which provides for the welfare, care, protection and rehabilitation of children aged under 16.
Said Mr Lee: "There are many reasons why youth 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 these young people may still not have the full cognitive maturity of adults."
The changes include the expansion of the Youth Courts' jurisdiction to hear cases of offenders up to under-18, except for more serious offences.
Currently, offenders 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.
Young people who are 16 years and above who commit offences are tried as adults in the State Courts or the Community Court... But studies have shown these young people may still not have the full cognitive maturity of adults.
MINISTER FOR SOCIAL AND FAMILY DEVELOPMENT DESMOND LEE
Key changes proposed
PROTECTING CHILDREN FACING ABUSE AND NEGLECT
• Extend protection to abused or neglected children to the age of 18, from 16 years.
• Introduce Enhanced Care and Protection Order till age 21 to allow the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and caregivers to make substantive decisions.
• Extend childcare leave benefits to foster parents to care for their foster children.
• Define and provide intervention for circumstances of "emotional harm" so there is less confusion about when intervention is necessary.
FOCUS ON FAMILY DYNAMICS
• Rename Beyond Parental Control to Family Guidance Orders to reflect the families' involvement in guiding children.
• Parents and child are to complete a programme before Family Guidance Orders are granted.
HELPING YOUTH OFFENDERS START AFRESH
• Extend rehabilitation to youth aged up to 18.
• Extend probation orders to include youth offenders under 18.
• Allow youth offenders to declare that they do not have a criminal record once they complete Youth Court orders.
• Protect youth offenders' identities for life, unless they re-offend.
INVOLVING THE COMMUNITY
• Train volunteer welfare officers to support vulnerable children.
• Protect volunteers and social service agencies from legal liability if they acted in good faith.
With the proposed changes, offenders under the age of 18 will, by default, have their cases heard in the Youth Courts.
But with youth who commit serious offences - such as unlicensed money lending and gang or drug-related activities - or are repeat offenders, the public prosecutor has the discretion to charge them in the Youth Courts or another appropriate court, like the State Courts.
The proposals include amending the Probation of Offenders Act for the Youth Courts to impose probation on a person below 18, even if he or she is unwilling to comply with the conditions of probation. The present age limit is under-14.
The Youth Courts can also decide to detain a youth at a Juvenile Rehabilitation Centre if he is under 18.
Now, they can go to these centres only if they are under 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 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.
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."
Mr Weevyn To, 35, a former social worker and former resident of Singapore Boys' Home, welcomes the suggestions.
"Restraints can help ensure safety and security. But this method of curbing hostile behaviours is remedial in nature," he said.
"There should also be preventive methods to stop unhealthy groups from forming in the homes in the first place, as well as targeted intervention of individuals exhibiting high risks of hostile behaviour."
Correction note: This article has been edited for accuracy.