On 14 Feb, a teenager with special needs was sentenced to 18 months of probation for mischief, causing public nuisance and criminal intimidation.
The 19-year-old had, among other things, brandished a pair of scissors at a girl and damaged the property of retailers on two occasions in 2017 and 2018. According to TODAY, the teen felt frustrated as he was unable to find his way to his appointments with a social worker and a counsellor, and took it out on things and strangers around him.
The total damage he caused amounted to more than $3,000 in total.
The sentence handed to the teen drew mixed responses. Some called for more empathy or compassion to be shown to the teen because of his condition and the circumstances that led to his offences. Others felt that he deserved the punishment meted out because of his actions, and actions have consequences.
Could more empathy have been shown to the teenager, then? Was it appropriate to punish the teenager, who clearly needs help, for his outburst?
Lawyer Nicholas Aw, a partner with Clifford Law, pointed out that the law has to be equal for all, and the fact remains that the teenager with special needs had committed an offence.
“What would the general public expect the court to do? He did commit an offence,” said Aw. “Was there a causal link between his inappropriate behaviour and his condition? If not, then why should we give him relief? The damage the boy caused was quite serious, so it may not be in the public interest to give him a warning.”
Aw also pointed out that probation was a good option, as the teen would not end up with a criminal record.
According to the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC), probation will not count as a criminal conviction. The offender on probation will be supervised by a probation officer during this period, and is free to carry on his daily activities. However, he must not reoffend and must also adhere to the conditions attached, such as curfews.
Nicole Ling, who has nearly 20 years of experience in psychology and counselling, was among those who called for a more compassionate approach even though she felt that under the current law, probation was the best option.
“We need to know that they struggle a lot even with their daily activities – buying lunch, going out for a while on their own, taking public transport. And when they are unable to function mentally, sometimes they cannot differentiate between left and right,” Ling said.
“When they get lost, they get angry… Probably the teen went into the shop asking for help, but of course, the staff wouldn’t know and wouldn’t be able to answer. He probably felt very angry with the situation, and the only way for him to express himself is probably to throw something, to hit something.”
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“And as the reaction gets more negative, he gets even more triggered.”
Ling also wished for the law to be more “empathetic towards people with special needs”, because they are not on equal standing with the rest.
“They don’t function like the rest of us,” explained Ling. She did agree, though, that what the teenager did was no small matter.
“But if I knew that this person has special needs, then I would be more forgiving,” Ling added.
Both Aw and Ling agreed that the law is not catered towards those with special needs and it is an issue that needs looking into. They also felt that more awareness in dealing with people with special needs is required.
“Singaporeans in general don’t really know how to identify/treat special needs people,” said Ling, who also shared how she once had to step in to clear up a misunderstanding for a boy with special needs while on a train. The boy wanted to ask for help but didn’t know how to do it, and he ended up being accused of molesting a woman.
“More awareness is needed,” said Ling. “I think for many people, they don’t know because they are not professionally trained in psychology, so they will just say ‘crazy person’, ‘siao ah’, ‘this person belongs in IMH’, (and) so on and so forth.”
Aw added that from his experience in handling cases involving people with special needs, he found that there are a number of people in the legal field who are “not exactly equipped to deal with” people who require special attention.
“(I feel) we need to work with lawyers, the prosecution and judges with a view of raising awareness among the legal fraternity,” explained Aw, a former president of the Disabled People’s Association.
“Without understanding all the issues, they may not be able to deliver an appropriate sentence. There is also a need for a change in legislation because even if judges are aware of the teen’s condition, the judge has limited options when it comes to sentencing. Between imprisonment and probation, probation is the easiest way out.”
He has already taken steps to address the issue, starting with a talk last month with some lawyers.
“We are just starting, but it is not easy. Nonetheless, it was a good start and those who attended were very receptive. But we have to work with not just lawyers, but others in the legal field, too.”
Aw felt that what is more important is a need for a separate law for people with special needs and mental disabilities.
He said: “There is a need for a new legislation catered towards persons with special needs or disabilities… And it is not just about the law. It’s in the way they are treated, from employment to education.”
“There are ongoing workshops conducted on the CRPD (United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities), by the DPA (Disabled People’s Association), IPS (Institute of Policy Studies) and other voluntary welfare organisations. It is a good start. But more needs to be done.”