This Week In Court

– week of 12th Feb –

This week in court, we take a look at some of the circumstances that lead to youth ending up in prison. Many youth who are incarcerated end up going back through the ‘revolving doors’ of prison as adults. What are the impacts of institutionalisation on young people? Do these punishments address the reasons the youth come into conflict with the law in the first place, or are they merely an attempt to control deviance and enforce conformity upon them, often causing greater harm? When we don’t address the conditions these young people live within, or question why our laws are so harshly stacked against difference and nonconformity, we end up punishing children and young people because it invisiblises and individualises what are, in fact, structural injustices.

A minor, 15 years of age, was sentenced to 12 months in Juvenile Rehabilitation Center (JRC) by a youth court. He had, with his elder brother, stolen at least 225 stored-value cards from unattended motorcycles over a period of two months in 2022.

The young boy had asked not to be placed in JRC, and the parents also asked that the youth be placed on probation so he could remain at home to accompany them, because their elder son was also to be institutionalised.

The judge found the boy unsuitable for probation on the basis that there was inadequate family support and supervision. He had lived with his stepfather and mother after his father passed on. He faced violence from his stepfather, and the Court found that the mother “struggled to control” the youth since he was 13. The mother had previously applied for a Family Guidance Order for the boy.

The Court also said the boy’s ‘personal characteristics’ militated against probation – playing truant from school, failing to comply with curfew post-arrest, defaulting from social investigation interviews. There was personalised coaching on subjects by an assigned teacher “to re-integrate him into the classroom setting”, but “no evidence of any improvements in his delinquency”. The judge singled out that the youth “attempts to justify his theft based on his need for money.”

The judge ultimately found that the boy’s behaviours meant that juvenile detention was needed for the youth to not only “understand the wrongfulness of his actions but also to learn about applying himself productively”.

The judge acknowledged that “even as a JRC placement is rehabilitative in design, it is not without punitive effect given the institutionalisation and consequential restrictions on liberty that it entails.”

While the prosecution had recommended a longer period of institutionalisation of 18 months, the Court ultimately sentenced the boy for 12 months in parity with his brother’s institutionalisation orders at Boy’s Town.

The boy was unrepresented in this case.

In youth cases, it feels like the Court often pays lip service to the need of rehabilitation over punishment, but its approach often focuses on controlling or incapacitating deviant behaviours.

It focuses on the actions and tendencies of the youth, but ignores the social conditions and circumstances that give rise to them – abuse and neglect, negative relationships with adults and peers, punishment, and negative school experiences, amongst others.

While there is no transparent data on how many youth who face juvenile detention end up incarcerated as adults, TJC understands anecdotally that the number is significant.

In TJC’s report on the Singapore prison system last year, we highlighted that the carceral system operates as a revolving door, each instance of incarceration makes the next incarceration more likely.

Institutionalisation is seen as a necessary response to youth who are labelled delinquents, or whom those in authority find difficult to extract obedience from. But these youth and their families often face challenging circumstances that are only made worse by periods of incarceration and absence from familial contact.

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