Petir Explains: How the Govt brings down recidivism rate

It was, as the photos show, a grey and stormy morning at Changi Prison three Sundays (Sept 23) ago.

But our Party’s leaders — Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo and Minister of State for Home Affairs Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim — were there regardless.

They, alongside 3,000 other runners, were part of the Yellow Ribbon Race (YRR) 2022. This race is an annual event held to give ex-offenders (of which 9,000 are released from prison every year) a second chance in life.

The overarching objectives of race organiser Yellow Ribbon Singapore (YRSG), afterall, include these three “A”s:

Raising Awareness of the need to give second chances to ex-offenders and their families, generating Acceptance of ex-offenders and their families in the community and inspiring community Action to support the rehabilitation and reintegration of ex-offenders back into society.  

So at the YRR 2022, DPM Wong was the Guest-of-Honour who flagged off the races. Speaker Tan clocked in a healthy 57:23 minutes for his 10km (and might deserve a spot as a Healthier SG ambassador). And Minister Teo commented on the YRR after her run.

“I am glad the event garnered strong support from corporations and the public through their participation in the run and donations to the Yellow Ribbon Fund,” she posted. “Their actions will help support more rehabilitation programmes for the inmates, ex-offenders, their families, and children.”

“Thanks to everyone’s support, we raised S$150,000. These funds will be used for programmes to help ex-offenders to re-integrate into society,” posted DPM Wong similarly.

Why does the Party support in all these ways — physically, socially, financially and organisationally — these ex-lawbreakers, though? These are, after all, people who could be judged, and referred to, as “those people”.

The answer is simple: In the words of YRSG, it’s to “help unlock the second prison” for people who have lawfully discharged their debt to society.

In other words, it’s bringing down the tendency of people to reoffend (“recidivism”). This is for everyone’s benefit.

Prison: discharging a debt to society

Crime, no matter how large or small, is not acceptable.

The Penal Code and other statutes of the law like the Arms Offences Act, Misuse of Drugs Act and the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act make clear that Singapore’s courts will punish criminals appropriately — up to ten years jail for unlawfully possessing arms or ammo, a maximum of a year in prison for crank-calling emergency numbers and, yes, death for drug trafficking, for example.    

And the key word in that long, example-laden sentence just now, is not “punish”.

It is “appropriately”.

All these different prison sentences for different offences are the different “prices” an offender must, in an equivalent exchange, “pay” for his or her crimes. 

The Singapore Courts set these “prices” according to the Penal Code, operating within a public sector that is consistently among the world’s least corrupt, and where, as Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam once said, the Government has a “ruthless intensity in upholding integrity” relating to criminal justice.

In other words, the Singapore Courts will set an appropriate prison sentence as the “price” an offender “pays” in order to discharge his or her debt to society.

And this “price” of incarceration is meant not solely to deter or punish.

It is to turn lives around for the better, letting inmates — through discipline, upskilling, counselling and treatment — transform themselves into contributing members of society.   

The second prison

But ex-offenders, having paid their debt to society, find that life post-Changi is often a “second prison”.

The bars of this second prison are suspicion, mistrust and discrimination. These are invisible, problematic and heightened by the digital era’s easy-access, eternal archives.

They are also not penalties set out under the law.

At the same time, research and reports from scholars and policy-makers worldwide show that gainful employment is a key way to prevent ex-offenders from becoming re-offenders.

In Norway, previously-unemployed ex-offenders were 43 per cent less likely to reoffend within five years when they have found a job post-prison. Similarly, giving ex-offenders in Minnesota employment assistance for up to one year after release from prison reduced their rearrest rates by 35 per cent.

And in the United Kingdom, ex-offenders who served sentences of less than a year and found employment afterwards reoffended at a rate of 32 per cent; offenders who remained unemployed were, with the rate at 69 per cent, likely to reoffend. For those who spent one year or more in prison, the re-offending rate was 43 per cent for those unemployed but 18 per cent for those who had a job.

Here in Singapore, the YRSG’s 2010-2016 employment assistance helped reduce the probability of reoffending by 11.95 per cent across the board two years after release. At the same time, it increased the probability of inmates being employed by 7.68 per cent.

So, the YRSG delivers rehabilitation and a sort of informal justice for ex-offenders who have lawfully discharged their debt to society. It provides employment opportunities as a way to break the release-and-repeat cycle of prison sentences, especially for recalcitrant ex-offenders in the community.

It frankly benefits no one when ex-offenders reoffend. Not the state, not those whom they reoffend against, not their families and definitely not themselves. All these are societal, monetary and personal costs.

Ministerial support at the YRR here is high-profile, wide-reaching, and forward-thinking. It’s thought leadership too, highlighting to employers that, yes, ex-offenders are part of society once more — they aren’t “those people”.

Or, in the words of DPM Wong:

“We can all do our part and build a better, more inclusive Singapore. Let’s continue to uphold this strong spirit of solidarity to support all our ex-offenders and strive to be a society that believes in second chances.”

Reducing recidivism even further

At the same time, Singapore’s two-year recidivism rate continues its decades-long downward trend, and is in fact at a 30-year low as of 2021 — 20 per cent.

This is significantly low when compared to other countries, and the YRSG has helped bring this about.

And in recent years, YRSG trains approximately 5,100 inmates yearly and engages about over eight in ten eligible inmates in its work programmes.

In other words, this second chance doesn’t fall on the inmates’ laps. They work for it, in the spirit of Singapore’s meritocratic system.  

The number of employers registered with YRSG has increased steadily over the years, from 5,093 in 2016 to 5,895 in 2020. Job retention rates are up too, with 69 per cent of ex-offenders holding down a job for at least six months in 2020 compared to 60 per cent in 2016.

But more needs doing. The five-year recidivism rate in Singapore is at 41 per cent, noted MOS Faishal in June this year.

“Gainful employment allows ex-offenders to be financially independent and improve their overall quality of life,” he said. “Yellow Ribbon Singapore is a key enabler in this area.”

He added that YRSG’s Train And Place & Grow initiative will equip inmates with deeper industry skills and pathways for the media, precision engineering, logistics and food services sectors. Moreover, the new Employment Preparation Scheme will let suitable inmates undergo skills training and education in the community.

“This will help inmates to enhance their employability, secure jobs, and reintegrate with the rest of society,” said MOS Faishal.

There needs then, even more support from Singaporeans — and hence the Government — during this continuing, often rocky process. Forming an ecosystem in order to break a long-term cycle is difficult.

That the Yellow Ribbon’s main outreach is the race works well as a metaphor though. 

People might stumble and fall during it, just like Singapore’s ex-offenders. But here, grit can combine with a helping hand. 

Then our fellow Singaporeans’ll be up and running again — and the event in its entirety will become better for it.

The Yellow Ribbon Community Arts Festival is coming to Gardens by the Bay November 5-13 2022. More details will be released closer to the date.