Death of Justin Lee: He would have had a chance to reform after being dealt with in court, says Faishal

Seventeen-year-old Justin Lee was charged in court on June 24, 2021, and died on Sept 16 from a fall from height. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The 17-year-old who was under investigation for trafficking drugs when he fell to his death would have been given a chance to reform after he was dealt with in court, Minister of State for Home Affairs Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim said.

Replying to questions from five MPs in Parliament on Tuesday (Nov 2) regarding the case of Justin Lee, Dr Faishal said the young man could have had a far better future.

Justin died after a fall from height near his home on Sept 16 after he was arrested by Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) officers on Feb 3 and charged in court on June 24 with drug trafficking.

"In Justin's case, he was trafficking drugs and it seems like he was also abusing drugs. But with the right help, he could also have changed. And our processes are structured to provide that guidance and help after he is dealt with in court.

"We bring in the family into these efforts as well," said Dr Faishal, who noted that Justin had legal representation and was living with his family.

Dr Faishal added that the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has been putting out the message that young offenders arrested for drug offences will have opportunities to reform, and will have to continue doing so.

He said that it is difficult to do more than speculate what the answers to questions that have been raised following Justin's death are.

"What happened in those eight months? I think it is difficult to say. Is it the fact that the case was coming on in seven days' time? Did he speak with anyone about the oncoming case and his concerns? Were there other issues?

"How did he have traces of drugs in his blood? How is it that he appears to have consumed drugs before his fall? There are many questions, and it is difficult to do more than conjecture what the answers are," said Dr Faishal.

Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) asked if MHA planned to review protocols for dealing with suspects who are minors or had special needs, and Dr Faishal replied that there are regular reviews.

Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) in 2016 and Ms Lim in 2017 had asked if all individuals under 18 could be supported with an appropriate adult during law enforcement interviews. The Appropriate Adult Scheme for Young Suspects (AAYS) allows a trained volunteer to accompany suspects under 16 years of age during such interviews.

"There were some difficulties in expanding the scheme to suspects in this age group, and so we decided to operationalise the current process (announced in 2017) for a period first, while we consider if, and if so how, we can deal with the issues," said Dr Faishal. "We will announce our decision in the next few months as to whether we can extend the AAYS scheme to persons who are 16 and 17 years old."

Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim (Chua Chu Kang GRC) asked about CNB's protocols when conducting drug-related investigations involving young people with a history of medical or mental health conditions.

Dr Faishal said that if it is made known to the officers that the subject has medical or mental health conditions and would require special attention, prior to bringing in the person to assist in the investigation, CNB officers will contact the parents or school first, if feasible.

Under these circumstances, they will activate an appropriate adult to be present during the interview, Dr Faishal added.

"If the subject displays any medical or special needs during the interview, officers will pause the investigation and activate support measures, such as activating an appropriate adult or sending the person to the Institute of Mental Health for assessment," he said. "If the person is observed to be capable of being interviewed, the officers will carry on with the interview. The point is that they will use their discretion, based on their observations."

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Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC) asked for statistics on people under the age of 18 who were arrested and had a history of mental health conditions, and those who subsequently were hospitalised or died. Dr Faishal said that MHA does not track these cases and it is not meaningful to do so, as some may have died or been hospitalised due to health problems not related to the investigation.

Out of 9,485 people under 18 years old arrested from 2016 to 2020, only 16 per cent were prosecuted, and the rest were not. "Justin's case falls in the small minority of 16 per cent - because he was openly trafficking," said Dr Faishal.

"Suitable youth who have been arrested for minor offences can be referred to diversionary programmes such as the Guidance Programme introduced in 1997, which has a strong focus on counselling and rehabilitation... Justin will also have been placed on such processes after sentencing (if he had been found guilty)," he added.

Responding to Nominated MP Shahira Abdullah on how law enforcement agencies identify vulnerable people and those with mental disabilities, Dr Faishal said officers are trained to do so. "The Home Team has also worked with the Agency for Integrated Care to increase officers' awareness of mental health conditions and help them to identify and respond to persons observed to have some mental health issues," he said.

Dr Faishal said an officer will check if a person has a Developmental Disability Registry Identity Card issued by the National Council of Social Service, look out for information that the person may be undergoing treatment at healthcare institutions for diagnosed mental disabilities, and observe their behaviour.

Dr Shahira also asked how family members of a young person, whose death is suspected to be related to the person's interaction with the criminal justice system, can request a formal investigation into the death.

Dr Faishal said that under the Coroners Act, any death in custody or suicide would be deemed a reportable death, and the police must investigate the cause of the death and report their findings to the coroner.

Justin was not in custody when he died.

If the person died in custody, a coroner's inquiry must be held. It is not mandatory to hold a coroner's inquiry if the person died while not in custody, said Dr Faishal.

But the coroner may still decide to hold an inquiry after considering factors, including the desire of any member of the deceased's immediate family to do so, he said.

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