Reading between the bars: evaluating probation, remodelling offenders, and reducing recidivism

AuthorRathna Koman/Matthew Soo
PositionAssociate Professor of Law (Practice)/LLB Candidate,Yong Pung How School of Law, Singapore Management University
British Journal of Community Justice
©2021 Manchester Metropolitan University
ISSN 1475-0279
Vol. 17(2) 134149
Rathna N. Koman, Associate Professor of Law (Practice)
Matthew Soo Yee, LLB Candidate,Yong Pung How School of Law, Singapore Management University,
Contact details:
Probation has been in existence in Singapore for more than 70 years. Given its long existence and vested interest in
community-based sentencing, this paper calls for an effective measurement of probation officers training and
supervision of the offenders measured against recidivism. First the paper focuses on the genesis and evolution of
probation coupled with a brief description of programs conducted by probation officers since its introduction till its
present iteration, along with i ts merits. The emphasis lies in the shift from a supervisory program to one which
proactively seeks to transform behaviour, hence reaffirming remodelling character of probation. Second, it is
recommended that effectiveness of training, supervision of offenders by Probation Officers be measured against the
rate of recidivism. To this end, it is proposed that effectiveness of probation can only be measured against recidivism
given that probation targets criminogenic needs of offenders. An evaluation of data presented on recidivism suggests
that while the recidivism rate is decreasing, it does not maximize the potential role of Probation Officers. Third,
training along the lines of Strategic Training Initiative in Community Supervision (STICs) program can be considered
to enhance lower recidivism rates. Lastly, it is recommended that Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) be conducted
for evidence-based policy making in criminal justice system, since RCTs can be useful in assessing the efficacy of
probation as a community-based sentencing tool, particularly whether the policy orientation of probation meets the
goal of reducing crime.
Probation, Remodelling, Recidivism, Rehabilitation, Randomized Controlled Trials, Two-Tier System, Strategic
Training Initiative in Community Supervision Singapore, Evidence-Based Policy Making.
Probation as a sentence has existed in Singapore since 1949. In the year s following its introduction, Singapore
transitioned from a crime-control model towards one allowing for rehabilitation and reintegration for crimes and
offenders on the rehabilitative spectrum. Against this backdrop, Singapore’s Probation program has undergone a
gradual evolution. This paper seeks to track the developments in the area of probation with particular emphasis on
the role played by probation officers within the probationary system and the actual rehabilitative programs
introduced measured against recidivism. While it has generally been assumed that these programs and the
improvements made to them are effective in better rehabilitating and reintegrating probationers into society, there
is value in documenting and measuring the effectiveness of these programs.
To address this problem, this paper looks at the development of Probation since independence. It considers the
philosophical underpinnings of the sentence and how these principles were operationalized through the years.
Further, using the recidivism rate as a basis of c omparison, this paper considers whether the evolution has been
effective. Finally, drawing upon the experience of countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom, this paper
makes two specific suggestions in relation to the training of Probation Officers. We further suggest the adoption of
Randomized Controlled Test to better measure the effectiveness of our Probation program more generally.
Koman and Soo
The evolution of probation in Singapore
This segment considers the philosophical underpinnings behind a probationary sentence. It then briefly describes
the programs conducted by probation officers since its introduction till its present iteration, highlighting in particular
the shift from a supervisory program to one which proactively seeks to transform behaviour. This description being
necessary to contextualize the discussion in Part III regarding Singapore’s recidivism rate.
Singapore’s sentencing philosophy
A convenient place to start would be with a general description of the philosophy which undergirds Singapore’s
understanding of sentencing. Consistent with most common law systems, sentencing in Singapore remains guided
by the four classical principles of sentencing stated by Lawton LJ in R v James Henry Sargeant (1974) 60 Cr App R 74
of retribution, deterrence, prevention and rehabilitation.1 The current Chief Justice, Sundaresh Menon (2017:25),
has described these principles as being different methods of achieving the ultimate goal of the protection of the
public through the prevention of crime.
Within this framework of the prevention of crime, the case law suggests that probation is a sentence which falls
within the rehabilitative pillar of sentencing. As explained in Public Prosecutor v Mohammad Al-Ansari [2008] 1
SLR(R) 449 at [30] and [64], rehabilitation seeks to alter the values of the offender so that he no longer desires to
commit criminal acts. This is accomplished by reducing or eliminating the factors which contributed to the offending
conduct. To this end, probation i s a form of sentence which the court can pass in expression of the principle of
The application of these principles were evident in A Karthik v Public Prosecutor [2018] 5 SLR 1289 at [80]-[83],
where the court rejected the Appellant’s request for a shorter period of probation and community service,
emphasizing that probation was not “simply restrictions and i nconveniences that were being imposed” as
punishment. Instead, probation and its conditions “ reflects society’s willingness to pour valuable resources i nto
remoulding and reconstructing the Appellant’s future”. Hence probation is undoubtedly now seen as a remodelling
tool of the offender’s character propensity to commit crimes, an essential factor to consider when assessing the
effectiveness of the probation as a rehabilitative tool.
This framework is also consistent with how probation is operationalized statutorily in the Probation of Offenders Act
1985. (c 252) Singapore: Toppan.2 Under s 5(2) of the POA, probation as a sentence is imposed if the court considers
it necessary for securing the good conduct of the offender or for preventing a repetition by him of the same offence
or the commission of other offences. Thus, the foc us on securing “good conduct” and preventing a “repetition”
emphasizes the fact that probation is fundamentally a rehabilitative sentence.
Finally, it is worth highlighting that the current understanding of the rehabilitative nature of probation is partially
consistent with the original intention behind its introduction. When first introduced in 1949, there were two
principles undergirding probation. First, it was conceived as a means of providing a “rehabilitative service” for young
persons who had been exposed to “various forms of physical, social and emotional deprivation” during the Second
World War ( Canagarayar, 1988:106, citing Vel oo, 1982:5). Thus, it was described in the Legislative Council (1949:
B93) as “a more progressive method of dealing with juvenile delinquents”. Second, probation was also understood
as being a tool which was economically beneficial by keeping persons in their former em ployment and thereby
making them contribute to the economic life of the country. This emphasis can also be seen i n the Legislative
Council’s desire to “prevent a class of chronic law-breakers from springing up”.
We highlight the different historical conception of probation during its initial introduction in 1949 for two reasons.
First, the Legislative Council’s initial consideration of economic benefits demonstrates that a probationary sentence
was previously understood as having ancillary benefits apart from rehabilitation. This is important since, as the
authors will later suggest, the current manner in which probation officers are trained can be improved to enable the
1 For additional examples, see; Chua Tiong Tiong v Public Prosecutor [2001] 2 SLR(R) 515; Public Prosecutor v Law Aik Meng
[2007] 2 SLR(R) 814; Public Prosecutor v Koh Wen Jie Boaz [2016] 1 SLR 334; and Public Prosecutor v ASR [2019] 1 SLR 941.
2 Hereinafter, (“POA”).

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