Punishment of teenage crimes
Teen offenders on the rise
Straits Times April 15, 1999 Every year, about 2000 youngsters are caught by police for a range of petty crimes, such as shoplifting or extortion.
NINE in 10 of them are let off with a formal warning.
In effect, they are being told by the police: "You have been very bad. But we don't want to tarnish your record by taking you to court. So don't do it again."
The rest would be charged. And the trouble is that most of these 200 or so teens hauled to court have been cautioned before or were involved in more serious crimes such as robbery and rioting.
The question then arises as to whether a police warning is enough to get teens to stay off crime for good.
Statistics on juvenile delinquency are not encouraging. The numbers peaked in 1995 when a record 2574 youngsters were arrested.
Tough enforcement and strong messages from the courts had brought the figure down a little but there is no sign of the problem abating.
Last year, 2242 teen offenders were nabbed -- a 4 per cent increase over the 2147 in 1997.
Against this backdrop, the Subordinate Court's Roundtable Committee on Juvenile Delinquency made a bold recommendation to nip the problem in the bud -- by reaching out to delinquent teens even before they are hauled to the court.
This is a major departure from judicial norms because courts deal traditionally with offenders only after they are charged.
For a start, the committee is focusing on those kids who are arrested by police but are let off with warnings.
Apart from just the verbal warnings, it feels that more should be done, such as getting the police, the kids' parents, educators, social workers and even the victims together in a community conference to talk to the offenders.
The offenders will get to hear first-hand about how their crime affected their parents and their victims. After such heart-rending sessions, the committee hopes that the kids would be remorseful enough to stay away from mischief.
There are also plans to assign mentors to watch over these kids.
The rationale for is is that if many of these teens can be deterred from committing further crimes, the police and the courts will have smaller groups of delinquents to deal with in future.
But efforts should not just stop there.
For some years, the police and the Central Narcotics Bureau have seen considerable success in their "sharp-and-shock" treatment of bringing teen gangsters and high-risk students for visits to prisons and drug rehabilitation centres.
Perhaps the committee could also consider rounding up juvenile delinquents for similar tours.
Some observers feel that apart from the police's cautioning system, schools too can play a major role in helping to identify the problem kids.
Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin, who follows issues on juvenile problems closely, feels that there should be a co-ordinated effort in schools to look out for the "gangsters and pranksters" among students.
Gangsters, he said, are those who form groups to intimidate other students and will potentially commit crimes while pranksters are students who commit childish mischief for fun.
He said: "We can be tolerant of pranksters but not the gangsters."
He suggested that schools identify such high-risk students early and subject them to counselling programmes involving their parents, police and social workers.
And for such schemes to work, parents should play active roles and not leave their parental duties to the schools and the society, he said.
He added: "I feel sad whenever I see parents with worried looks when they wait with their kids at the Juvenile Court.
"If they are genuinely concerned, they should have shown it earlier because by the time the matter goes to court, it is already too late."