Half of arrested teens are seen by social workers to assess if prosecution is appropriate

The Sembrong dam in Malaysia's Kluang district. PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

SINGAPORE - In the first half of this year, about 50 per cent of young people arrested were assessed by social workers to see if they were more suited for social services, such as counselling, instead of prosecution.

For the whole of last year, the proportion of youth who went through this new programme was about 40 per cent, according to figures The Straits Times obtained from the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).

Called the triage system, this programme benefits youngsters aged 19 and below who are arrested for minor offences such as shoplifting and fighting.

It allows the teens to be referred quickly to other social services if needed, and was rolled out at all police divisions last year. It is expected to run until 2020.

In response to queries, MSF said there were 1,089 triage interviews last year. This was about 40 per cent of the 2,788 young people arrested.

In the first half of this year, there were 686 triage interviews, forming about half of the 1,279 youth arrests.

Each young person referred to the triage attends an interview with his caregiver, said MSF's spokesman.

In one case, a secondary school boy arrested for a negligent act in April was found to have been deeply affected by his mother's death from cancer, and the triage interview revealed that he might have committed the offence out of grief.

Instead of being charged, the 15-year-old was referred to his school counsellor and let off with a warning.

The triage interview is one of several initiatives to guide and rehabilitate young people. Together with other programmes, these initiatives will soon be centralised under about 10 key organisations.

Other initiatives include the Guidance Programme, which diverts offenders of minor crimes towards counselling and rehabilitation.

In April, an Appropriate Adult scheme was also rolled out in phases, for those aged below 16 to be supported by independent volunteers during police interviews.

While experts say the triage system is a step in the right direction, as punitive measures such as jail are not long-term solutions, they added that more youth who are arrested should be going through triage interviews.

Mr Sunil Sudheesan, president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, said the triage is "symptomatic of a more enlightened" and less punitive approach taken by the police force now, with many young people who are arrested generally being hauled up for minor offences.

"There should be more openness to adopting such non-judicial measures to deal with youth offenders," he added.

"Jail seems straightforward, but it is not a long-term solution. We have to be cognisant of that."

Singapore Children's Society chief executive Alfred Tan also hopes more young people can go through the triage system.

He added that numbers may not be as high as they could be, because of resource constraints.

"This system allows us to speed up the process, allowing youth under investigation to be referred to the right agencies in the shortest possible time," he said. He added that the triage helps to address the root problem of more complex cases, such as brawling in public areas.

"These could be surface problems," he said. "The underlying issue could be substance abuse, gang involvement or something else."

Police arrested more than 7,000 young suspects between 2011 and 2015 for offences such as rioting, with 15 per cent being prosecuted in court.

Join ST's Telegram channel here and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.