Key to rehabilitate, not punish, young children in proposed move to raise minimum age of criminal responsibility

The Singapore Boys Home and Singapore Boys Hostel in Jurong West Street 24. The Penal Code review committee has proposed to deal with young offenders through a system that involves counselling, treatment or other programmes under a non-criminal frame
The Singapore Boys Home and Singapore Boys Hostel in Jurong West Street 24. The Penal Code review committee has proposed to deal with young offenders through a system that involves counselling, treatment or other programmes under a non-criminal framework.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Social workers and lawyers have welcomed the proposal to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from seven to 10 years.

They say that younger children often do not have the intellectual capacity to understand or control their actions or fully understand their consequences.

This is backed up by science, said Ms Lena Teo, deputy director of therapy and mental wellness at Care Singapore, which helps at-risk youth.

She noted that a child's prefrontal cortex in the brain, which controls high level cognitive functions like decision-making and impulse-control, is not fully formed until the late teenage years.

And throwing children into the criminal justice system at such a young age, often for petty crimes like shoplifting, may do them more harm, than good.

Lawyer Amolat Singh said: "If you throw the book at them (put them through the criminal justice system), they may be scared stiff and this may result in more psychological harm to them."

Social workers noted that research has found that the younger the age at which a child enters the criminal justice system, the more likely he or she is to re-offend.

One reason is that detaining children from a young age makes it harder for them to re-integrate into society when they are released.

On Sunday (Sept 9), it was announced that the Penal Code review committee proposed to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from the current age of seven to 10.

The panel also recommended that children aged above 10 and under 12 years-old, who do not have the maturity or understanding to judge the nature and consequences of their conduct, should continue to not be held criminally liable.

In lieu of putting these young children through the criminal justice system, the committee is suggesting dealing with them through a system that involves counselling, treatment or other programmes under a non-criminal framework.

 

No further details of this new system are available yet.

The report produced by the review committee said: "Although there is no scientific consensus on when a child is mature enough to appreciate right and wrong, and the natural consequences of his actions, there is some authority that a 10-year-old is generally able to appreciate the importance of law and order concerns."

The committee also noted that the current minimum age of seven is deemed too low by international standards.

For England and Hong Kong, the minimum age is 10. It is 14 years in Japan and South Korea. And the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Children says an internationally acceptable minimum age should be 12 years.

In proposing to raise the age limit, the committee highlighted that very few children under the age of 10 were caught for getting into trouble with the law.

There were about 150 children in the seven-to-nine age group arrested between 2014 and 2016. They comprised only about 2 to 4 per cent of the total number of juveniles aged from seven to 15 years arrested each year.

According to the police, the top offence committed by juveniles in the last five years was shoplifting.

Other common offences include cheating, fighting, vandalism and trespassing.

Meanwhile, the proposed new system to deal with very young offenders, such as through counselling, has been lauded by observers.

They said that the focus should be rehabilitation, not punishment.

Mr Alfred Tan, chief executive of the Singapore Children's Society, said it is key to ensure that proper intervention helps the child develop the right life skills in the future.


Correction note: In an earlier version of the article, we wrongly attributed a statement to a Ministry of Home Affairs spokesman. We are sorry for the error.