Straits Times: Upping of jail sentences: Caution urged

CHANGES TO THE PENAL CODE

MEMBERS of the House yesterday called for caution when it comes to upping jail time for offences.

Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong and Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim both expressed disquiet at the doubling and even quadrupling of some jail terms in the revised Penal Code.

For instance, the maximum jail term for unlawful assembly will be raised from six months to two years.

The increase in maximum fines is understandable since fines were last revised in 1952. But taking away a person’s liberty is a serious matter, they said.

Both questioned the need for the increase in jail terms.

All in, 56 offences will have their maximum fines raised, and 110 will have their maximum jail time increased.

The Government says the changes will give the courts greater sentencing discretion, and reflect crime trends, and judges may not necessarily impose the maximum sentence either.

But Ms Lim and Mr Siew, both trained lawyers, warned that once maximum sentences go up, accused individuals, even if innocent, may face pressure to plead guilty. This usually attracts a discount in sentences as it is supposed to indicate some remorse.

Ms Lim gave the example of a wrongly accused person who might have fought the charges in court if the penalty was six months but is less likely to risk it if he faces up to two years’ jail.

She reminded Parliament how it had to backtrack in 2004 with excessive penalties for harbouring illegal immigrants. Some of those who felt the full lash were elderly landlords and pastors.

Yesterday, Mr Siew called on the Ministry of Home Affairs to disclose the factors considered with each increase in maximum sentence.

“To my mind, it is dangerous to increase the maximum sentences of so many offences without proper justification. It pays insufficient respect to the fundamental importance of a person’s liberty,” he said.

In the same vein, Ms Lim said the proposed changes should be sent to a select committee for a comprehensive review before the new Bill is passed.

The committee, comprising MPs familiar with the administration of criminal justice and social affairs, should scrutinise each clause to see if each change is justifiable and what else should be changed.

The MPs should also hear opinion from legal experts on whether the wording of the provisions needs to be tweaked, she said.

Plus, public feedback should be put on record as reflection of a vibrant public discourse, she said.

This is vital as the Penal Code is an important part of Singapore, she added.

“The Penal Code is our main criminal law, an expression of society’s barometer of what is criminal and what is not, the relative seriousness of offences and how citizens are to be punished,” she said.

SELINA LUM & LIM WEI CHEAN

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