Why It Matters

Support for young suspects

Being questioned by the police can be a stressful experience, especially for young people aged below 16 and their parents.

A new scheme starting in phases from April that allows independent trained volunteers - or Appropriate Adults (AA) - to accompany young suspects in police interviews could help. Based on an existing scheme for people with intellectual or mental disabilities, the AAs will be a more comforting presence compared to uniformed police officers and provide emotional support. More importantly, being trained in police procedures, they can prevent miscommunication.

The AA scheme was announced by the Ministry of Home Affairs last Friday after a multi-agency review of the criminal investigation process for minors.

While AAs are involved only in the police interviews, the Education Ministry has also made changes by ensuring that youngsters picked up from schools are accompanied by staff in police vehicles.

The tweaks are the Government's response in addressing concerns sparked by the suicide of Benjamin Lim, 14, in January last year, hours after he was taken from school and questioned by the police.

 

The case had led parents to ask if officers should be allowed to interview minors alone, and what schools should do when the police arrive to question students. While many cheer the new scheme, some have questioned why parents cannot sit in on the police interviews and why the police retain the discretion on whether to involve an AA.

But it is important to note the need to balance solving crimes and protecting the interests of minors. Not all cases will require AAs too. More than 7,000 young suspects were arrested between 2011 and 2015, but only 15 per cent were prosecuted.

AAs are also no foolproof solution to youth suicides. But the scheme does provide a safeguard against similar cases - as long as the police exercise discretion judiciously. For a start, it requires the public's support in coming forward as volunteers.

The death of one schoolboy, even if he had been treated sensitively, is still one too many.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2017, with the headline 'Support for young suspects'. Print Edition | Subscribe