Young people make mistakes all the time, and young Hongkongers aren’t excluded from that. In February, a 15-year-old girl was imprisoned for nine years for trafficking the drug ketamine. Last year, a teenager was arrested after police seized HK$1.3 million worth of suspected cannabis buds.
Hong Kong’s criminal justice system allows rehabilitation to be used as an alternative to going to jail. Under the law, young people aged 10 to 13 cannot be sentenced to imprisonment, and – unless there is no other way to deal with them – young people aged 14 to 20 cannot be jailed for serious offences.
The local government’s website states that rehabilitation consists of “two phases with detention ranging from three to nine months” at a rehabilitation centre. There are 13 of these centres in Hong Kong. They work with charities and social workers to rebuild the lives of young people.
Educators at the centres empower young people in their custody to study for their HKDSE if they haven’t already done so. In 2015, the overall pass rate was 75 per cent, which is very high. The centres also encourage regular community engagement initiatives, such as cooking competitions.
That’s the power of rehab – of second chances. I’ve seen close friends and people my age make mistakes that have got them in serious trouble. Our city, though, is willing to take a chance on its youth. It believes in the use of education to better people.
But perhaps there’s a bigger issue at heart. As a mental health advocate, I can’t help but think that the high crime rate among the city’s youth is a direct result of their mistrust in our society. This mistrust is a by-product of how inaccessible mental health care is in government schools. If we want to minimise the number of young people offending in the first place, we need to change how we view youth well-being – and that begins with community building and better education.
We have to consider what “most effective” means – most effective at deterring future crime? At serving justice? At providing damages to victims?
Rehabilitation might well be very effective at lowering future crime rates, but there are other factors that it cannot possibly provide for. It is unreasonable to think of rehabilitation as the single most effective sentence for young offenders.
I’ll establish some context for my argument by looking at the concept of retributive justice. The main idea is that both mens rea (the malicious intent behind the action) and actus reus (the action itself) should be established before prosecuting an individual. This means that if the individual cannot freely choose how they act, they should not be prosecuted.
It’s common, in the case of young offenders, for their mens rea to be not fully established. Outside factors such as an abusive home or negative influences from their peers are correlated with juvenile delinquency. These criminal acts aren’t necessarily subject to the same punishment as those committed by adults with criminal intent. Therefore, to argue against retribution in favour of rehabilitation because of imprisonment’s supposed inhumanity or unreasonableness is flawed.
However, having no mens rea does not simply excuse a person of the crime: because there is still the obligation to undoing the harm to the victim. For young offenders, this is often done through community service, which serves as a punishment (therefore imparting to the offender the understanding that crime is inexcusable), a contribution to society, and a character-building exercise.
The “punishment” aspect of retributive justice is one that rehabilitation doesn’t allow for. Punishing offenders serves as a warning to society that such conduct is condemnable, and also as a warning to criminals that they have committed an illegal act. Young people must learn to take responsibility for their own actions and accept their consequences.