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Examining How Ex Offenders Seek New Life Criminology Essay

Info: 5399 words (22 pages) Essay
Published: 1st Jan 2015 in Criminology

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“While ex-offenders acknowledged that they needed to play their part in seeking a new life, they called for society to be more understanding, and for more rehabilitation and employment opportunities, so that they can reintegrate with, participate in, and contribute to society.”

Para 69, Report on “Youth: Creating our Future” Consultation Exercise

1. The above extract served as the launch pad for our workgroup’s review into the issues surrounding offenders before, during, and after incarceration.

2. We hope that the extract would aid the reader in putting our report into perspective as it details the areas of focus, and the philosophies and proposals behind each focus area.

In our quest to understand the primary difficulties faced by offenders, let us weigh the experiences of a typical offender as he goes through his journey from incarceration to reintegration:

During incarceration: He suffers from the negative influences of the prison environment

Before release: He is enthused by his impending release, but remains skeptical of pre-release programmes

After release: He is overwhelmed by the transition to society and estranged from the community

In response to the above, we directed our review and tailored our proposals in three broad areas of focus:

Enforcing Incarceration as a Last Resort

Bridging the Divide between Incarceration and Reintegration

Tackling Discrimination

5. We have adapted the Bronfenbrenner’s model of an ecosystem as the environment of an ex-offender for attachment as Annex A. This model may aid the reader in putting our philosophies and proposals into the “bigger picture”.

6. Feedback is greatly appreciated at youthreloadedsubgroup3@yahoogroups.com

Enforcing Incarceration as a Last Resort

Background

1. While incarceration or the threat thereof provides the elements of deterrence, punishment, and quarantine to the justice system, it can bring about unwanted side effects that work against the interests of both society and incarcerated individuals.

2. An incarcerated offender is subjected to the threats of contamination from hardened criminals within the prison environment. The punitive isolated environment is also conducive for the offender to seek refuge and identity in the company of negative influences. Upon his release, the offender might find himself distanced from his family and friends, while sharing a sense of identity with his former inmates. Coupled with the stigma that society places on him, the offender might be dragged into a vicious cycle of “criminalisation”, where minor offenders, through incarceration, find themselves too estranged from society to reintegrate.

3. Our view is that if the application of incarceration is not adequately accompanied with a commensurate effort by the justice system to divert reformable individuals to restorative programmes, a vicious cycle will end up being increasingly perpetuated.

4. While we recognise that youths, in particular the older ones amongst them, are mature enough to discern the criminal nature of their actions, and hence be held culpable for their offences, there exists great potential for rehabilitation in such offenders and thereby avert the cycle of criminalisation. It is our wish that young offenders be given the opportunity to optimise this potential and as far as possible, be diverted from incarceration onto rehabilitative programmes.

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5. While we push for diversionary sentences, we are well aware of the need to maintain incarceration for its original purposes of deterrence, punishment and quarantine. We also recognise that many improvements have been made to allow rehabilitative programmes to take place in the prison environment. We endorse the need to maintain a balance of punitive and rehabilitative sentences, while targeting the more lenient and restorative programmes to those whom we assess as suitable.

Review of Current Situation

Age bars and sanctions

6. The Children and Young Persons Act (CYPA) defines a ‘Child’ as being a person who is below the age of 14 years and a ‘Young person’ as being a person who is 14 years of age or above and below the age of 16. In adherence to this age limit, the offender must be below 16 years (i.e., juvenile) when he/she is first charged in the Juvenile Court. Once he reaches the age of 16, the Juvenile court relinquishes its jurisdiction over to the adult court.

7. For the purposes of this document, “youths” and “young offenders” are defined as individuals aged 16 to 21, while “juveniles” refer to offenders below 16.

Pre-sentence reports

8. For juvenile offenders, pre-sentence reports (PSRs) are made after the youths plead guilty, or are found guilty. PSRs allow the magistrate to review the circumstances surrounding the juvenile’s offence, as well as his background, before the deliberation of the sentence.

9. For youths aged 16-21, the judge has the power to order PSRs for first time offenders, but this feature is not mandatory.

Sentencing options

10. Diversionary sentences are limited for youths. They can be put on the Probation Programme (PP), which is run by MCYS. Young offenders can also be sent to Reformative Training Centres (RTCs) and Drug Rehabilitation Centres (DRCs) run by the Singapore Prisons Service (SPS).

Gaps and areas for enhancement

11. We have identified philosophies and policies that could be reviewed to further serve the needs of young offenders and society at large. The following points are identified:

Age bars and sanctions

12. The current age cap for the Juvenile Court is 16.

13. We are concerned on how this age cap would reconcile with other age bars:

The United Nations Conventions on the Rights of a Child defines a child as a person below 18 years of age. [1] 

The right to consume alcohol or tobacco at the age of 18

The right to marriage without parental consent at the age of 21

The right to vote at the age of 21

14. To a smaller extent, we also wonder if having too many age bars would present a confusing picture to the individual on his freedoms and rights as an adult.

Time lag between offence and trial

15. Whether an offender is charged as a juvenile or an adult depends on the age when he is charged, not the age when he committed the offence. This can result in the youth being treated as an adult court for offences he committed as a juvenile. Therefore if 2 boys, one who has just turned 15 and the other about to turn 16, were to commit an offence together – they will be treated differently if the older boy turns 16 before the conclusion of his case. A harsher judicial regime awaits the older boy-even if he is just marginally older than the younger one, and notwithstanding the fact that he could have played a lesser role in the offence.

16. Although the justice system expedites the investigations of juveniles nearing their 16th birthday, there is no legal guarantee that juvenile offenders will not get charged as adults through this technicality.

17. We are also worried about possible instances where individuals who were well below 16 at time of offence can be charged a few years after they committed their offences (for whatever reason).

Disparity in sentencing options

18. While the Juvenile Court is more open to alternative sentencing and employs the Restorative Justice model, the court system that older youths go through is more punitive and arguably less rehabilitative.

19. While we acknowledge that generally, maturity comes with age and a more ready acceptance of personal responsibility, we feel that older youths should be given the opportunity to benefit from the restorative programmes which juveniles are privy to. We argue that these youths are still at a stage where they are somewhat impressionable and susceptible to negative peer influences, but the potential to turn over a new leaf is still very real. Notwithstanding the efforts of current institutions like RTC (Reformative Training Centre), we respectfully urge the justice system and community to exploit even more the potential for youth to veer away from the cycle of criminalisation and nurture them as productive and active citizens of society.

Proposals

20. We would like to acknowledge the efforts of government agencies, especially Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and Singapore Prison Service (SPS), for constantly reviewing incarceration philosophies throughout the recent years and regularly introducing rehabilitative programmes in prison sentences. Through our proposals, we hope to address the areas where gaps have been perceived and policies can be furthered attuned. The proposals are predicated on our philosophy of steering reformable offenders away from incarceration and preventing them from being dragged into the vicious cycle of criminalisation.

Near Term Proposals

Proposal 1: Provide wider sentencing options for offenders – according to the age when they committed the offence, not the age when they are charged.

Rationale: Offenders should have their sentences meted based on the circumstances surrounding the time of their offence (age being a very critical circumstance). While we recognize the division of court’s jurisdiction based on age, the incongruity between a fixed event ( the time of offence) and a variable event (the time the offender is charged in court) can be resolved by giving the judge wider sentencing powers , ie. to treat him as per his age at time of offence .

Constraints: One potential concern arises when there has been a time lag of several years of more: Would juvenile programmes such as the Boys’ Home and Guidance Programme be effective on an older youth or even an adult? We feel that if the youth has since been free of crime, he can be deemed as having reformed and should be meted out with a Community Service Order (CSO) instead.

Stakeholders: The Juvenile Court is best placed to champion this change in practice, with the police in partnership as the latter carries out offence investigation.

Proposal 2: Make pre-sentence reports mandatory for all first-time offenders aged 16 to 21 [2] . For repeat offenders, we urge the court to call for updates to their PSRs to incorporate new circumstances that may mitigate their cases.

Rationale: Pre-sentence reports (PSRs) are critical documents which judges can refer to during the deliberation of sentences. In an adult court of law, where even minor offences can land a young offender in jail, we urge the use of PSRs to allow the court to better appreciate and understand the culpability and reformability of the offender before sentencing. Through this enhancement, we hope to reinforce the philosophy that incarceration is a sentence of last resort. For repeat offenders, updated PSRs would help the judges achieve a complete picture of the circumstances surrounding the offender’s crimes, as well as the evolution of his background.

Constraints: One concern is the resource and manpower limitations of MCYS’s Probation Service as it is the division that churns out PSRs. We advocate a review of allocation of resources to address this limitation. Another concern is that the processing speed of court trials would be slowed down.

Stakeholders: The Judiciary is best placed to push for the increased use of PSRs. MCYS should come in as partner to work out the implementation details of the proposal

Proposal 3: Extend appropriate restorative programmes to youths aged 16 to 21. Our proposed programmes include the Guidance Programme (GP), Community Service Orders (CSOs) and Home Detention Order.

Rationale: With the extension of the aforementioned programmes, the adult court will have even wider discretion to steer youths away from incarceration [3] . Coupled with the use of PSRs, the Court will consider diversionary sentencing even more and leave incarceration as a last resort to treat repeat/ severe offenders.

Implementation: We recognise that deterrence and punishment must remain as serious enforcement tools in dealing with youths. To balance between the need to maintain strictness and severity in treatment of offences with the principle of giving a second chance, we urge the court to consider a “cocktail” treatment to implement our proposal: offenders serve shorter sentences before entering restorative programmes.

Constraints: One concern is the risk of contamination when older youths mix with juvenile offenders in the restorative programmes that had hitherto catered mainly to the latter. This risk is minimized as the option is primarily for those charged for minor offences or where relevant mitigating circumstances exist. The older youths can also be segregated from the juveniles. Another concern is the ability of restorative programmes to cope with the increased workload.

Stakeholders: The Judiciary is best placed to champion this proposal, in particular the Juvenile Court as advisor and the administrators of restorative programmes as partners.

Medium/ Long Term Proposal

Proposal 4: Review the current age cap of 16 for offenders to be charged in the Juvenile Court.

Rationale: As mentioned earlier, there are different age limits marking the different milestones of adulthood in Singapore. The age cap of 16 for offenders to be charged as juveniles happens to be one of the earliest. Though this topic has been broached before in earlier reviews, we wonder if the authorities can review the circumstances around the age cap in light of the rise of the awareness towards the needs of offenders as well as the effectiveness of restorative programmes to keep them off the cycle of criminalisation.

Constraints: Whilst there are several schools of thought [4] , we take the view that age caps are arbitrary as a person’s maturity cannot be determined by age alone. We feel that more room can be given to individuals of age 17 or 18 to benefit from the range of sentencing options currently accorded to under16s at the Juvenile Court. But the raising of the age cap would also let more youths to undergo a more lenient and restorative court of law, which is in line with our philosophy of making incarceration a last resort.

Stakeholders: This proposal advocates a change in legislation. We suggest that the Ministry of Law, along with the Ministry of Home Affairs, conduct this review.

Bridging the Divide

Background

1. The phase between incarceration and reintegration is a critical one, during which offenders can embark on restorative programmes and prepare themselves for lives after incarceration.

2. This phase is made up of pre-release (the duration right before release) and aftercare (the duration after release). We believe that it should be run as a seamless transition to ease the convict from one environment to a totally different one.

3. Being released from prison can be at times a bittersweet experience. Almost every convict feels the initial rush of freedom. But that sense of exhilaration dries up when society turns out to be a strangely familiar yet distanced place. What many an ex-offender fails to realise is that he himself has changed so much during incarceration that adapting to his new environment is by no means an easy task.

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4. Many ex-offenders fail to stay on top of things and forget the promises made to their wardens, their counselors, and most importantly, to themselves. They end up avoiding outreach programmes and losing focus on their rehabilitation. Other ex-offenders fail to adjust to the rigours that society places on them and seek refuge and identity with other ex-offenders. Alas, every ex-offender that turns his back on society is a potential recalcitrant hardcore criminal who drags not only himself but his loved ones down as well.

5. Being aware of this risk, society must help ex-offenders transit to a new environment and provide opportunities for them to reengage their communities.

6. We acknowledge and applaud the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA)’s efforts in setting up an extensive and well-planned pre-release and aftercare framework that is tailored to meet the needs of the newly released. To this end, we hope that MHA will continue to extend educational, social, and employment opportunities through its framework.

7. We as a workgroup seek to add value to the existing framework. Our proposals will enhance the efficacy of certain programmes as well as create new ones to reflect the need to bridge the divide between the incarcerated and the released.

Review of Current Situation

Short Pre-release programmes with tight itineraries

8. Pre-release programmes range from two months to one year before release, depending largely on the duration of the sentence. As a rule of thumb, the shorter the sentence, the shorter is the duration of pre-release.

9. The shorter the pre-release, the less time is there to engage the impending ex-offender in counseling and introduction to aftercare programmes. The tight itinerary leaves little room for a convict to “absorb” the meaning of the programmes. Coupled with the rush of knowing that freedom is just around the corner, the convict is likely to rush through the programme without paying heed to how he wants to manage his life after release.

Menial Nature of Community Outreach/ Service Programmes

10. Both aftercare programmes and community service orders (CSOs) advocate community service as a channel for ex-offenders to give back to society as well pick up skills that might prove useful in other aspects of their lives.

11. To that end, we wonder if the menial nature of work and the limited capacities to add value serve as stumbling blocks to capture ex-offenders’ interest.

Proposals

12. Our philosophy is simple: to enhance and add on to the existing framework of pre-release and aftercare to bridge the divide between incarceration and reintegration.

Near Term Proposals

Proposal 1: Lengthening Pre-release Duration

Details: We seek to enforce a minimum duration in which there will be adequate time to conduct counseling as well as allow convicts to sample more aftercare programmes. We advocate longer pre-release for longer sentences to factor in more counseling in light of his longer exposure to the prison environment (as well as longer absence from the outside community).

Rationale: We believe that no matter how short a sentence is, an offender requires enough counseling and preparation for his transition to society. In addition, we hope that, through the sampling of more programmes at a more relaxed pace, the offender would have enough information and focus to settle down on an aftercare programme in which he has a genuine and sustainable interest.

Constraints: There is no guarantee that the receptivity to the programmes will increase with longer pre-release. Also, pre-release programmes face security limitations as offenders cannot leave the prison environment up till their point of release.

Stakeholders: We see the Ministry of Home Affairs as best placed to champion this review, as well as VWOs as partners to enhance pre-release programmes as samplers to their aftercare components.

Proposal 2: Enhancing Early Release Programmes

Details: We want to offer early-release programmes such as the Home Detention Scheme to every deserving convict. The Home Detention Scheme is an early release programme where offenders are tagged, monitored, and placed under curfew. Participants of this scheme are allowed to work or study in the day.

We hope to extend early-release programmes to those who wish to enter tertiary institutions, or to seek hospital-based psychiatric treatments for addictions (eg. gambling, substance abuse) that spurred them towards crime. By removing participants from the prison environment, it will also be possible to bring forward aftercare programmes to the pre-release phase, as well as institute compulsory community service programmes as a way to gain exposure and pay their dues to society.

Rationale: This proposal espouses our philosophy on striking a balance of punitive measures (deterrence through incarceration) and rehabilitative programmes (such as counselling, community service). Hitherto, convicts who have displayed good behaviour and genuine determination to reform have been placed on early-release schemes (eg. Community Based Rehabilitation Programme) on that premise. We seek to enhance the value of early-release by expanding the array of endeavours convicts can undertake to enrich themselves.

Implementation: We would like to focus on the Home Detention Scheme as a case in point. A convict can be considered for eligibility a year or so before his release. The following screening criteria (by no means exhaustive) should be considered:

Severity of offence/ Length of sentence

Conduct in institution

Response to institutional rehabilitation efforts (eg. counselling)

Psychological assessment of criminal/offending attitudes

Support of family

Likelihood to benefit from programme (eg. an overstayer/ illegal immigrant is unlikely to benefit)

The activities and programmes the convict is eligible for:

Employment through SCORE or other channels (on his own merit)

Education in any mainstream school (on his own merit)

Hospital-based psychiatric treatment for possible addictions

Compulsory stint in community service

Aftercare

Constraints: Expanding early release programmes entails an increase in the resources needed to support the effort. There is also a fear of participants re-offending and betraying the trust vested in them by their employers and/ or schools. Their unrepentance levies a burden on their families and support groups.

While this fear is within reason, research has shown that breaches of the Home Detention Scheme have been lower than 1% (MHA, 2003). Moreover, our proposal does not relax the entry criteria, but seeks instead to give participants access to rehabilitative measures such as psychiatric treatment, community service and outreach programmes.

Stakeholders: We see the Ministry of Home Affairs as best placed to champion this review, since it is the ministry which manages early-release programmes. But the roles of partners such as SCORE, aftercare agencies, VWOs and IMH are equally important in providing the avenues of engagement for the participants.

Proposal 3: Provide roles of ownership and responsibility in community orders and aftercare programmes.

Details: To accept ex-offenders in existing or new community outreach programmes where they can contribute in capacities most suited to their talents. Other than extending a wider variety of roles to cater a wide array of talents, there must also be roles where ex-offenders can conceive, plan and execute certain events.

Rationale: Many ex-offenders lack the self-esteem and harbour an inferiority complex which makes it extremely difficult to break out of their shells to reengage society. Their situation is akin to a Catch-22, as self-esteem is also gained through gratifying interactions with the community. The self-esteem of an ex-offender can also be raised through the satisfaction of having his talent widely recognised and appreciated.

We believe community outreach programmes are excellent platforms to help ex-offenders regain their self-esteem. An ex-offender would find pleasure and satisfaction in the programme if he can display his talent: be it jamming in a rock band at a community concert or leading a run on a health awareness day. His positive takeaways will definitely raise his self-esteem, which we hope will encourage him to take charge of other aspects of his life just as earnestly.

Constraints: Community programmes might be reluctant to open up higher profile roles to ex-offenders due to doubts on the latters’ competencies and trustworthiness. Also, for the proposal to be effective there must be a critical mass of such roles to cater to ex-offenders and their myriad talents and preferences.

Stakeholders: We feel that the main aftercare agencies such as SCORE, SACA, and SANA are best placed to champion this proposal. But this is essentially a small scale programme that can be undertaken by other VWOs to create a critical mass of value added roles. VWOs such as self help groups (eg. SINDA, CDAC, Mendaki) can explore how they can fit ex-offenders into their existing array of community outreach programmes.

Proposal 4: Create a support group for newly released ex-offenders

Details: Use older and mature ex-offenders who have successfully reformed and settled down as role models and mentors for the newly released. We aim to keep this group low profile and inject the support group into activities (eg. community service) which form the platform of interaction between the mentors and their mentees.

Rationale: Mature and reformed ex-offenders have the potential to be role models the way we as non-offenders can never be. They share a common experience with the newly released and can empathise with the concerns and distractions of the newly released. We hope that our role models can be the anchors in the lives of ex-offenders after prison.

We want to keep this group low profile to encourage mature ex-offenders to join. Their participation is key to this proposal’s success. Instead of creating a platform for the support group to interact with the newly released, we can leverage on existing platforms such as community outreach programmes which are conducive for more laid back interaction.

Constraints: The first concern is obvious: How do we keep the group low profile yet seek recruitment actively? We believe recruitment can be achieved by looking through databases of older ex-offenders, as well as by word of mouth and by timely advertising latching on to wider advertising campaigns (eg. Yellow Ribbon Project). There is also a risk of negative influences flowing from the newly released to matured ex-offenders and vice versa. We hope to address this concern by selecting only matured and reformed ex-offenders as mentors.

Stakeholders: We find the main aftercare agencies such as SCORE, SACA, SANA, as well as the Singapore Prisons Service well placed to spearhead this proposal.

However, our workgroup, having initiated this proposal, would like to step forward and take ownership of our idea. We would like to see ourselves evolving into a steering committee where we will have representatives from the abovementioned agencies providing advice and bringing about cross agency initiatives. We are thrilled by this unique opportunity to pursue our ideals and to drive this proposal from inception to fruition. We hope the abovementioned agencies can lend us their support in our efforts.

Tackling Discrimination

Background

1. About 11,000 ex-offenders are released from the prison system every year. However, many ex-offenders find themselves transiting to a “second prison”, where they are locked up in invisible cells: behind the walls of ignorance, fear, distrust, and stigmatisation.

2. This “second” prison stymies the best efforts of ex-offenders to seek rapprochement with estranged family members, mend fences with their community, seek employment and root themselves as engaging citizens of society. Facing great difficulty in seeking a semblance of a normal life, the allure of crime and the succour provided by their ex-inmates grow all the more tempting.

3. Our ex-offenders are fighting an uphill battle to reintegrate. They have special needs and added difficulties in carrying out day to day activities. We as the more privileged must extend a helping hand where possible, without sapping the ex-offenders’ spirit of self-reliance. Our measure of success would be to help ex-offenders up to the point where they can help themselves.

4. In particular, we applaud the ex-offenders’ willingness to seek employment. A stable and satisfactory job is an anchor in an ex-offender’s efforts to rid himself of the proverbial crutches. It is a major step in his reintegration to society. Our group will therefore focus on proposals that will aid him in his job search, as well as help employers who are willing to give him a second chance.

5. Through our proposals, we seek to redress the spectre of discrimination which hangs over the heads of ex-offenders seeking employment. It is one of the walls of the “second prison” that we have to tear down.

6. We applaud the success of the Yellow Ribbon Project and efforts of the relevant agencies such as the CARE Network in raising society’s awareness of the ex-offenders’ plight. We hope that through increased awareness, the public would be stimulated to alter discriminative mindsets and practices.

7. Our proposals would ride nicely on the success of the Yellow Ribbon Project, as they seek to give ex-offenders the same opportunity as every other job-seeker, and let employers see them for not who they were, but who they are and what they are capable of.

Review of Current Situation

Permanent criminal records

8. Criminal records in Singapore do not expire. In an ideal world where there is no stigmatisation, permanent criminal records do not pose a problem. But we all know that such a world is beyond us. Many a time, ex-offenders are viewed with a raised eyebrow and handled at arm’s length. Through stigmatisation, permanent records become brands that ex-offenders have to bear for life. These brands often reveal themselves when ex-offenders shed their veneer of isolation and are most vulnerable, eg. seeking employment.

Discriminative job interview question

9. The first step in a job application is often an application form. Most, if not all, forms pose a one-liner question which asks if the applicant has ever been convicted in a court of law for any offence in any country.

10. We acknowledge that employers have every right to protect their companies from high-risk individuals. With the declaration, they can screen off recalcitrant offenders who pose a risk to the operations of their businesses. The signed declaration by the applicant also justifies the prompt dismissal of the applicant should he resort to deceit to get the job.

11. While there is nothing wrong with the intent of the question, it can be used to discriminate against all who hold criminal records. Job applicants with records can be screened out regardless of the severity of their offences and their efforts to stay free of crime. We find it disturbing that individuals who have been convicted of minor offences in their youth are being denied interviews along with recalcitrant hardcore criminals who form the minority of job seekers.

Proposals to aid Ex-Offenders

12. As mentioned earlier, the aim of our proposals is to tackle the discrimination faced by job applicants head on. Through our proposals, we seek to adjust discriminative practices. We know that removing discrimination totally is a tall order; what w

 

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