Penal code review: Child offenders

Raising minimum age of criminal responsibility from 7 to 10

ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Children below the age of 10 will not face criminal responsibility for offences, up from the current age of seven, under a proposal by the Penal Code Review Committee.

The review committee is also seeking to expand the definition of rape, to introduce presumptive minimum sentences, and to refine and reserve the life imprisonment regime for the severest of offences.

In proposing to raise the age of criminal responsibility for children, the committee noted international trends which showed keeping the age at seven is low by global norms.

An online check showed that the minimum age of criminal responsibility remains at seven years in India while countries such as Britain and Malaysia have set the bar at 10 years. It is 14 years in Japan and South Korea.

The committee found that there would not be a significant risk to public safety with this change. It noted that 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 - those aged from seven to 15 years - arrested each year.

Together with the proposed rise, the committee recommended that children above 10 and under 12 years who do not have sufficient maturity of understanding to judge the nature and consequences of their conduct should continue to not be criminally liable.

A mechanism will be introduced to deal with offenders below the minimum age and offenders between 10 and 12 years who are acquitted by virtue of inadequate maturity, to attend treatment/counselling and other non-custodial programmes under a non-criminal framework.

 
 
 

Separately, rape will be expanded to include penile-anal penetration in the current definition.

Among other things, the outrage of modesty offence in Section 509 of the Penal Code is proposed to be made gender-neutral by replacing the term " woman" with " person".

The committee said its moves to update the Penal Code in relevant areas is to ensure that it covers circumstances where offences are committed against males and females, and to reflect changing societal norms and views on the roles of men and women.

It also recommended the removal of life imprisonment as a sentencing option for various offences which are not as severe as offences like culpable homicide.

Among the changes, the committee is also introducing presumptive minimum sentences for first offenders in exceptional circumstances where it would be unjust to impose a mandatory minimum sentence. For a start, this will apply to a "tightly scoped list" of nine offences. The Misuse of Drugs Act is excluded.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2018, with the headline 'Raising minimum age of criminal responsibility from 7 to 10'. Print Edition | Subscribe