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The city's top prosecutor has called for "compassionate treatment" of first-time offenders guilty of minor crimes, saying it could be an effective way of discouraging them from getting on the wrong side of the law again.
Director of Public Prosecutions Kevin Zervos told the South China Morning Post that successful convictions and harsh penalties are not necessarily a deterrent for first-time offenders. Instead, a compassionate approach could stop them reoffending, he said .
Zervos said there we multiple ways to achieve criminal justice, such as asking defendants to write letters of apology to victims or having law enforcement agencies issue warnings to young offenders.
Such measures do not leave an offender with a criminal record.
"I can see the positive effects of treating [first-time offenders] in a just and compassionate way. It is important to give a person a second chance and not to break their spirit. When you [give them a reprieve] the chances are they don't reoffend and you won't see them in the criminal court again," Zervos said.
"It is about dispensing justice and really giving meaning to justice - a correct and right way of dealing with a situation. You need to be innovative to steer people away from crime, not into it. You want people to be good citizens. We are administering justice and we are not there to win at all costs," he said.
"We are mainly talking about people coming before the court for the first time - sometimes they are young, foolish; sometimes they are mature people who act out of character and do something foolish.
"Sometimes they are in a domestic dispute and lose control. These can be isolated incidents and out of character," he added.
The same logic does not apply to cases involving repeat offenders or serious crimes, as they require strict handling, he said.
The latest statistics suggest the Department of Justice is already pursuing fewer prosecutions against young offenders. They show that prosecutors offered no evidence - that is, decided not to pursue a case - about 2,100 times a year since 2010, compared with about 1,400 times per year on average before 2006.
The cases mostly involved minor crimes by first-time offenders, or those who were young or very old.
Zervos' remarks follow a Post study that found the number of youngsters arrested continued to decline over the decade to 2011.
Out of the 38,327 people arrested last year, some 20 per cent were aged 10 to 20. That compared with 28.5 per cent of those arrested in 2001.
A further breakdown showed the share of those arrested who were aged between 10 and 15 - classified as juvenile delinquents - almost halved in the same decade, from 15.2 per cent of all those arrested in 2001 to 8.8 per cent of the total last year.
Criminal barrister Christopher Wong Tat-ming has noticed a rise in the use of leniency and alternative approaches by prosecutors when dealing with minor offenders in recent years. Wong supports the approach in principle.
He said the deterrent effect "depends highly on the character of the offender … Some people may not learn the lesson until they suffer punishment, such as being sent to jail."
Criminology lecturer Stanislaus Lai Ding-kee, of City University, agrees with taking a lenient approach.
He said Taiwan and some jurisdictions on the mainland, including Nanjing , were examining the feasibility of "restorative conferencing", which means a face-to-face meeting between an offender and the victim of their crime.
After reaching a reparation agreement with the victim, an offender attends programmes. The restorative model has been operating for years in New Zealand and Australia.
"Hong Kong society is too conservative," Lai said. "It is 30 years behind in this regard."