Citation(1996) 8 SAcLJ 157
Published date01 December 1996
Date01 December 1996

This article examines the law and practice of imposing sentences of preventive detention and corrective training on convicted persons by the District Courts of Singapore. Selected cases from the years 1985 to 1995 are evaluated and comparisons with the sentencing practice in England are made. It is suggested that the practice in Singapore should be refined.


The extent of recidivism in Singapore is a grave matter of concern. Slightly more than half (53.3%) of all convicted persons admitted to Singapore prisons between 1990 to 1993 were re-admissions who have sadly not “learnt their lesson” despite previous incarceration.1

The normal legislative response to repeat offenders is to provide for a progressive increase in the level of punishment in the hope that this will deter the offender. The final sentence may be left to the discretion of the court2 or stipulated in terms of a mandatory minimum.3 The judicial response operates in tandem such that the focus of sentencing is shifted from the particular conduct involved to the nature of the offender. Hence, in PP v Jafa bin Daud it was said that:

Where the convicted person has previous records and admits them as correct, the court must consider whether the offence or offences committed previously were of similar nature as the one with which he is presently charged. The court must then consider the sentences imposed in the previous convictions for similar offences to determine whether they have had any deterrent effect on him. Where he is found to be a persistent offender for a similar type of offences [sic], then it is in the interest of justice that a deterrent sentence should be passed and, in such a case, unless there are exceptional circumstances, the quantity, nature or value of the subject-matter of the offence with which he is currently charged can rarely constitute a mitigating factor.4

However, for some offenders the punishments imposed will not make any impact in preventing them from continuing their criminal activities. It is a particular problem which criminal justice systems around the world has

had to deal with for a long time;5 and it is no different in Singapore. Such offenders typically have a string of antecedents and have experienced the full range of punishments from fines to imprisonment and caning. This is where the aims of specific deterrence6 and rehabilitation have failed and the public interest demands that other solutions be found.

Two solutions specifically chosen by the legislature in Singapore for dealing with habitual offenders generally, are the sentences of preventive detention7 and corrective training.8 Both sentences are modelled on section 21 of the Criminal Justice Act 1948 in England9 and were first introduced for all offenders in Singapore in 195510 to bring the Criminal Procedure Code

“into line…with the law at present in force in the United Kingdom”.11 Some criticisms of these schemes have been made elsewhere and they will not be repeated here.12 This article seeks to show that insufficient guidance exists in the law on whether to impose a sentence of preventive detention, corrective training or other method of disposal. Moreover, the practice of imposing the sentences of preventive detention and corrective training has not always faithfully followed the legislative schemes. While some of these departures are supportable in principle, they run counter to the primary rule of statutory interpretation that the clear and unequivocal language of the law must be followed, however harsh or absurd or contrary to common sense the result might be.13 The combined effect of insufficient legislative guidance and judicial departures from the sentencing schemes foster inconsistent decisions which ought to be clarified.

Comparisons will also be made between our use of preventive detention and corrective training sentences with the sentencing practice of England when these sentences were still available. It is duly noted that although reliance on English sentencing principles is common in local cases, such comparisons must be done with care, giving adequate consideration to our local social environment14 and any differences in our law.

For the purposes of this article, selected District Court cases15 imposing sentences of preventive detention and corrective training between 1985 to September 1995 are examined. In total, 27 cases on preventive detention and 46 cases on corrective training are included. Trends are drawn from the written Grounds of Decision and, where possible, results of the appeal to the High Court traced. District Court cases are chosen for two reasons. First, the bulk of the criminal cases are heard, and therefore preventive detention and corrective training sentences given, in the Subordinate Courts.16 Secondly, District Court cases are normally unreported and hence it is difficult for those in the legal profession to detect trends and developments in the sentencing practice of these courts. This study is by no means comprehensive: only the sentencing practice of selected District

Court cases are examined;17 and the Grounds of Decision are only available and therefore considered where an appeal, either against conviction or sentence, is made to the High Court. However, it is submitted that even with its limited scope, this study provides a qualitative, if not quantitative, insight into the sentencing principles followed by the courts in general.18


The introduction of preventive detention and corrective training sentences brought about important changes in the law. Under section 12 of the Criminal Procedure Code, a sentence of preventive detention or corrective training may be imposed provided that the following criteria are met:

  1. (1) The sentence will lead to certain legislative aims;19

  2. (2) The offender’s age limit;20

  3. (3) The offender’s physical and mental condition and his suitability for such sentence;21

  4. (4) One of the two triggering antecedent conditions (A or B) is satisfied. For preventive detention, they are:—

    1. (A) (i) the present conviction is for an offence punishable with imprisonment for 2 years or more, and

    2. (ii) the offender has been convicted on at least 3 previous occasions since he attained 16 years of offences punishable with imprisonment for 2 years or more, and

    3. (iii) on at least 2 of those occasions he has been sentenced to imprisonment or corrective training.

    4. (B) (i) conviction at one trial of 3 or more distinct offences punishable with imprisonment for 2 years or more, and

    5. (ii) the offender has been imprisoned for not less than one month since he attained 16 years of an offence punishable with imprisonment for 2 years or more.

In the case of corrective training, the only difference in the triggering antecedent conditions is that for (A)(ii) the offender only needs to have been convicted on at least 2 previous occasions since he attained 16 years of offences punishable with imprisonment for 2 years or more.

These schemes are meant to free the sentencer from the restrictions of normal sentencing principles. First, they allow a term of detention beyond the normal sentencing limit of the District Courts to be imposed. The term of preventive detention is between 7 to 20 years, and corrective training between 5 to 14 years. In contrast, the maximum sentence of imprisonment which the District Court may pass is 7 years (or, if required by reason of any previous conviction or antecedents, up to 10 years).22

Secondly, they enable the sentencer to increase the custodial term for certain offenders drastically beyond that which can normally be imposed for a particular offence in order to achieve other sentencing goals. The principle of retributive justice is so deeply rooted in the common law that the punishment imposed could not be increased beyond the tariff applicable no matter how bad the record of the offender may be,23 or for purposes of rehabilitation.24 Lord Reid puts in starkly in DPP v Ottewell;

[Unlike the power of the court in preventive detention,] the previous power to extend a sentence for the purpose of protecting the public from the persistent offender was severely limited. It was regarded as improper to extend a sentence of imprisonment beyond a term which bore some relation to the gravity of the last offence: anything beyond that was regarded as additional punishment for previous offences, and that of course would be improper.25

The introduction of the legislative schemes of preventive detention and corrective training overcame these traditional restrictions by creating conceptually distinct methods of disposal.26

Thirdly, these schemes allow an extended sentence based on a likelihood of future crimes and not for a particular past crime. In relation to its own habitual offender statute, it was declared by the Supreme Court of Canada that:

Preventive detention…simply represents a judgment that the relative importance of the objectives of rehabilitation, deterrence and retribution are greatly attenuated in the circumstances of the individual

case, and that of prevention correspondingly increased. [The statute] merely enables the court to accommodate its sentence to the common sense reality that the present condition of the offender is such that he or she is not inhibited by normal standards of behavioural restraint, so that future violent acts can quite confidently be expected of that person. In such circumstances it would be folly not to tailor the sentence accordingly.27 (Emphasis in the original)

Fourthly, the requirement of consecutive sentences under sections 17 and 18 of the Criminal Procedure Code does not apply to preventive detention or corrective training sentences. Instead preventive detention or corrective training is to be ordered in lieu of the aggregate sentence of imprisonment which the court would otherwise have been minded to impose.28 However, if the...

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