Restorative justice the way forward, says prisoner care expert

KOTA KINABALU: An expert in prison rehabilitation from Singapore says restorative justice is the best way forward although the death penalty may still be needed to deal with certain heavy crimes.

Prison Fellowship of Singapore chairman William Wan said as a general principle, he is against capital punishment as there is always a risk of an innocent person being wrongly convicted and sentenced.

“This is the worry I have had for the longest time, even though my view is now modified,” he said, adding that he used to be against the death penalty.

Now, he only agrees to its use in certain capital cases.

“But I’m always afraid that innocent people will die because our system is not perfect,” he said at a forum titled “Restorative Justice – an Alternative to Imprisonment” yesterday.

Prison Fellowship of Singapore chairman William Wan.

Wan is one of the speakers at the two-day event organised by the Council of Restorative Justice Sabah (CRJS) here.

In the US, he said, 130 people sentenced to death had been found innocent since 1973 through DNA testing and released from death row.

In his own country, capital punishment is still regarded as an effective tool in law enforcement.

“But we have noted in a more serious study that the jury is still out on how effective punishment is as a deterrent,” Wan added.

“In any case, it’s my view that the justification for punishment, including capital punishment, must first be just deserts. It cannot be because it deters.”

He said discussions on capital punishment should centre on whether offenders deserve to have their lives terminated, not whether the death penalty will deter people from committing capital offences.

“If the answer is yes, then the question is, what offences?

“In Singapore, there are 32 offences that carry the capital punishment.”

He added that retributive justice requires that guilty people be punished in proportion to the severity of their crime.

Council of Restorative Justice Sabah president KH Tan.

“Does capital punishment fulfil the demand of retributive justice? Are there crimes so heinous that we must execute the criminal because that is the only just way?”

He also acknowledged the argument that families of victims would only be satisfied if a life is paid for with another.

However, he noted those who are prepared to forgive due to religious backgrounds or values. Others might say it does not make sense to take another life when one has already been lost, he added.

“What is the middle ground? Keep capital punishment, but give judges the chance to exercise their discretion in certain capital cases.”

He also suggested a system where judges are not made solely responsible for this but are supported by a board of advisers.

He said there are some cases in which the crime is so severe that capital punishment is the safest decision.

“But that should be a very limited number of cases.”

CRJS president KH Tan said Sabah is already applying certain forms of restorative justice, using mediation in minor offences to keep people out of jail.

He said this also helps address the problem of overcrowding in prisons.