FOCUS ON PRO BONO
A former CLAS volunteer recounts one of his cases,
where with the concerted efforts and support of the courts, psychiatrist,
social worker and community home staff, his client was able to overcome his
schizophrenic condition and turn his life around.
Most of the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme ('CLAS') cases I had the privilege of representing in the course of my practice were young male offenders. Most shared a common pattern of dropping out of school and committing a crime soon thereafter. But when CLAS requested that I represent John (not his real name), I was intrigued by his background.
John, at the time of the alleged offence, was an unmarried 40-year old naturalized Singaporean whose family members were living in Malaysia. Though he graduated from the National University of Singapore with a degree in architecture, he was working as a hawker's assistant. And more curiously, he was homeless, sleeping in a multi-storey car park in one of our large HDB estates. He had lost his job as an architect in or about 2003 when his schizophrenic condition made it impossible for him to be productive.
It was alleged that, on 21 May 2006, John used criminal force on a 16 year old female inside a shop with the intention of outraging her modesty, thereby committing an offence under section 345 of the Penal Code (Cap 224). This was not his first offence, for between 2003 and 2006 he was convicted on several counts of shoplifting and two counts of indecent acts. As a consequence, he spent at least an aggregate of four months in jail.
That he was in danger of being incarcerated again bothered me a great deal because he was suffering from schizophrenia. According to the psychiatric report dated 2 June 2006, John had four previous admissions to the Institute of Mental Health, three of which were court remands for psychiatric assessment. These court remands were the result of his earlier convictions for indecent acts.
The consultant psychiatrist also noted that 'compliance
to (sic) treatment had been a problem with John in the past, with frequent
defaults and a lack of insight into the fact that he has schizophrenia. Indeed
when he was last released from prison, he again defaulted follow up (sic)
and did not return for psychiatric follow up at IMH'.
The psychiatric report concludes that 'the presence of his schizophrenic illness … may be a contributory factor [to the commission of "sexual offences"] in that the illness causes disturbed judgment and impulse control. In addition, his motivation for the acts may have a psychotic basis. It would be premature to label him a true "sex offender". In light of this, to lower the risk of future recidivism, it would be prudent that compulsory court-mandated long-term treatment of his schizophrenia form part of any sentence meted out to John'.
It was obvious that incarceration was not the answer to John's situation. After speaking to the consultant psychiatrist at length, I decided to put forth an alternative approach to rehabilitation for the court to consider. At the pre-trial conference on 3 July 2006, before District Court Judge, Mr. Bala Reddy, I presented the alternative rehabilitation plan that comprises clearly defined community support in the following areas:
1 a psychiatric treatment plan for John prescribed by the consulting psychiatrist;
2 a counselling plan furnished by a social worker/counsellor; and
3 a community home for John to live and participate in.
In mitigation, I made the point that prison life for a normal person is stressful enough. For a schizophrenic, life in prison would only aggravate his mental condition, exacerbate the symptoms, making it harder to treat and possibly leading him to commit more offences. It was submitted that previous imprisonments did nothing to deter him and that further incarceration would only lock him into a downward spiral with no chance of him ever becoming a productive member of society again. What he desperately needed was a cure for his condition, not an incarceration for his psychotically-driven behaviour.
The plan found favour with the learned Judge. The Deputy Public Prosecutor ('DPP') had no objections. In the result, John pleaded guilty and the Judge sentenced him to a term to run from the date of his remand. Pursuant to section 11(4) of the Criminal Procedure Code (Cap. 68), the Judge also directed John to be under police supervision for 12 months. He was deemed to have served his term and was accordingly released on the same day he was sentenced.
Upon his release, he became a resident in a community home. There, he began to organise his life for he was expected to keep to a community routine. His talent as a creative person was also harnessed by the banner and sign-making workshop in the community home. For the first time in many years, he was able to find a good fit for his talent. That, in and of itself, was therapeutic for he began to gain considerable self-confidence. He began to interact and make connections with some of his fellow residents. The leadership of the community home also paid special attention to him, which alleviated his sense of neglect. For the first time he had caring friends who ensured that he was taking his prescribed medication regularly.
At the same time, the social worker visited him twice a month. He was able to open up to the social worker/counsellor. Over the months, applied psycho-therapy and a great deal of tender loving care worked wonders on John. For instance, whereas he had cut himself off from his mother and family in Malaysia because of his personal failure and consequent shame, now he began to long for his family. His mother was contacted and she flew over from Malaysia to the community home to see him. He experienced familial reconciliation which alleviated his sense of alienation. Soon after the period of police supervision was completed, he returned to Malaysia to visit his family. He was warmly welcomed by one and all. His experience of love, support and acceptance from his family overwhelmed him for he felt he deserved none of that since he perceived himself to have disgraced his family by his criminal conduct.
Happily, he was offered a job by an architectural firm through the recommendation of the social worker/counsellor. He found himself working part-time in the firm six months into the alternative plan. Now that he has completed his police supervision requirement, he has started working full time in the architecture firm. During his time in the community home, he has also developed an interest in the Christian faith and, in fact, is planning to be baptized in a Catholic Church in due course.
This is indeed a success story. The main success, of course, is John himself. He willingly participated, and committed himself to the treatment plan, the rules of the community home, and regular appointments with his social worker/counsellor. It is said that you can bring a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. John willingly drank the healing waters and much credit goes to him for his own determination to climb out of the deep hole caused by his psychotic condition.
It is also a success story for CLAS. Without CLAS, John could not have afforded a lawyer to advocate and mitigate for him. I consider it a privilege to be that advocate who helped make a difference in his life. But I could not have done it without the court and the DPP supporting the rehabilitation plan in the first place.
And, of course, I could not have gone very far with the plan without the generous gifts of time and effort by the consultant psychiatrist, the social worker/counsellor and the leaders and residents of the community home.
It is said that it takes a whole village to educate a child. It also takes a whole village to rehabilitate an offender. John is successful and on his way to more success because there are lots of people who care. For me, the story of John reaffirms the power of genuine human caring. It inspires me to care more, for caring enough to set another human being for success is one of the most satisfying human experiences.
Dr. William Wan1
1 The writer is a former lawyer and CLAS volunteer.