At its Plan Seminar this year, the State Court announced the launch of Pre-Sentence Protocol. It allows the State Court to direct an offender to seek various forms of rehabilitation or treatment before meting out a sentence. This is targeted at those who have pleaded guilty to relatively minor offences (e.g. theft, public order offences and criminal intimidation).
This move takes into consideration that some of these offenders could be repeating their offence because they are suffering from alcohol or other addictions. For these offenders, another term of imprisonment would not prevent them from reoffending. Instead, it may be more effective to address the underlying behavioural issues.
I think this is a huge step in the right direction. I personally know of someone who has some behavioural issues that result in him being regularly sent to prison for criminal intimidation. That guy has some anger management issues as a result of his childhood. And he has lower than average IQ (though not intellectually handicapped). His numerous trips to prison has done nothing to help him. And who suffers? His family – his wife and two daughters. I hope that this new protocol would help someone like this guy.
I do hope that the State Court achieves a great positive outcome with this Protocol and then extends it to people who are first time offenders. And to move from pre-sentencing to pre-conviction. Why? Because reality is very different from an ideal world.
In an ideal world, the only punishment an offender suffers from is exactly what the court decides. No more, no less. After he offender has served his time, it should be that he is considered to have paid for his crime. He should not be punished any more. He should be able to move on with his life.
But reality is very different. The moment a person has a conviction record, his life becomes a lot more difficult. He is automatically disqualified from many jobs. Even for jobs that he aren’t automatically disqualified from, he would find it difficult to find good jobs because many employers will look at him through tinted lenses. Very often, society, consciously or subconsciously, continues to punish offenders.
As a result, many of these offenders end up in a vicious cycle – offend once, get a conviction record, can’t find job, life gets tougher than what it used to be, does stupid things because of the stress of life, reoffends, gets arrested, earns label as a hardened criminal, rinse, repeat. The recidivism rate (i.e. proportion of prisoners released who went back to jail within three years of being released) in 2015 was 27.4%, the highest in nine years. This means that out of every 10 prisoners released in 2012, almost three would have gone back to prison sometime between 2012 and 2015.
Beyond recidivism rate, I think it would be useful to know how imprisonment affects the employability and earning power of a person. I don’t know of any study that does that. I wouldn’t be surprised if being convicted of certain crimes results in reduced employability and loss of earning power.
Given such realities, I hope that the State Court can consider pre-conviction protocol. For certain crimes and certain offenders who are willing to plead guilty, put them through some form of rehabilitation programme first. Defer their conviction for a period of time (say a year). If the offender doesn’t reoffend in that period of time, then take it that that offender was never convicted of his initial offence in the first place. Then this person wouldn’t have a conviction record. When applying for jobs, this person can then rightfully tick “No” to the question of “Do you have any conviction records?”
Of course, such a protocol needs to be balanced with society’s need to deter people from committing crimes. It won’t be an easy to find the right balance. But I believe that with enough intelligent and good-hearted people working on this, it can be done.