Community service sentencing: Derogatory to emblazon ‘monyet’ on offenders’ vests

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Photograph: Facebook (sayursayursayur2936 and PakejBudakMerah)

Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture (Madpet) is appalled by the revelation that minor offenders sentenced to do community service have been made to wear green vests with the word monyet (monkey) emblazoned on them in Semporna, Sabah (The Malay Mail, 11 January 2018).

While community service as a sentence is not the issue, putting the word monkey on the vests is just wrong. Even convicted persons must be treated with dignity. Doing community service in public is punishment enough. There is no need for any derogatory name association with even the guilty.

Article 1 of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 45/111 states: “All prisoners shall be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings.”

Asking offenders carrying out community service to wear vests with the word monyet emblazoned on them is certainly not treating them with respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings.

A person who is found guilty certainly needs to be punished, but we must not go overboard to permanently scar their dignity, name or reputation. After serving their just sentences, we hope that they will be re-integrated into society as good contributing citizens, never again to resort to crime.

It was also revealed in the media in May 2017 by the then Woman, Family and Community Development Deputy Minister, Azizah Mohd Dun, that “a total of 4,620 youths, aged between 18 and 21, were punished with community service between 2008 until last year[2016] for their involvement in social ills and crime”.

Azizah said the community service was aimed at rehabilitating and preventing young offenders from repeating past mistakes and at restoring them to society through sentencing, rehabilitation and awareness.

It is not clear how many adults were sentenced to community service in Malaysia, but the stress should be that any punishment, including community service, is ultimately to rehabilitate a person not to permanently scar them and indirectly their families as well.

It may be acceptable for those sentenced to do community service to do don brightly coloured vests with words like “Community Service For Committing Crimes” or something similar. But the derogatory branding with words like monyet or other similar words must end.

Chief Justice Richard Malanjum’s proposal to using alternative sentences like community service for minor or less serious offences is good, but Madpet proposes that this option also be considered for other crimes.

In Malaysia day, there are just too many in detention for a country of about 30 million people. The total prison population (including pre-trial detainees or remand prisoners) as at September 2017, according to the World Prison Brief, which claims the data was provided by the Ministry of Home Affairs, is 55,413, of which about 30% (as of mid-2017) were pre-trial or remand prisoners.

This means about 177 out of every 100,000 in Malaysia are in prison. The official prison capacity in September 2017 was 45,640, and the occupancy level then was 121%. There is thus serious overcrowding in Malaysia’s prisons.

The pre-trial detainees or remand prisoners, which is about 30% of the total prison population, would be those still not convicted who are not qualified to get bail, who have been denied bail or who cannot afford to pay the bail amount.

They also include all those charged under any one of the listed security offences in the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012. Section 19(1) states: “Bail shall not be granted to a person who has been charged with a security offence.” This would include the about 60 Penal Code Offences, including that about nine unjust and questionable “activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy” offences introduced in 2012 by the past government.

While Malaysia has a prison population rate of 177, many other countries have much lower rates – India (33), Iceland (37), Japan (41), Finland (51) and Sweden (59). A serious review of the reasons for such a high number in Malaysian prisons is needed. Prison conditions and the treatment of detainees, especially pre-trial detainees or remand prisoners, also need to improve.

The adequacy of judges and courts may also be of serious concern, as pre-trial detainees or remand prisoners who are innocent until proven guilty, deserve speedy trials which should start and end within three months at most.

Sentencing provisions in laws need to be looked at, including the provision of lower sentences for first-time offenders and minor offences. Are prison sentences just too long?

Many innocent people, especially the poor, who cannot afford bail, may simply elect to plead guilty and serve their sentence, rather than risk long detentions awaiting the completion of their trial. This is an injustice we do not want.

Madpet is also concerned about the treatment of suspects and those not yet convicted who are forced to wear lock-up or prison clothes when they appear for their remand applications or trial.

They should be allowed to wear normal clothes, especially when they go to courts, for the negative effects of being seen and photographed wearing such attire will have a long-term impact not just on them but also their family and friends, more so if they are ultimately found not guilty after a fair trial.

Even though, judges may be professional, they are still human. Would not seeing the accused in such attire and condition negatively affect the accused in trial?

In some jurisdictions, suspects and the accused are allowed to clean themselves and wear decent clothing before they are brought for their remand proceedings or trials. The state even goes to the extent of providing them with decent clothes for their court appearance, if needed.

As such, Madpet calls for:

  • the immediate removal of the word monyet (monkey) from the attire used by those sentenced to do community service while they are serving their sentence. Prisoners should be treated with respect and dignity
  • the abolition of the practice of wearing of special lock-up or prison attire when suspects attend remand applications or when the accused attend their trials
  • a review of sentences, introducing alternative sentences like community service, always bearing in mind that the primary objective besides punishment is the offenders’ rehabilitation and future re-integration into society
  • Malaysia to ensure that everyone is entitled to bail and no one should be denied bail simply due to poverty or laws like by reason of poverty or laws like Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, which unilaterally denies bail for all charged with a “security offence”. The entitlement to bail or otherwise should be the sole discretion and responsibility of judges after considering all relevant factors. Parliament should not deny bail by law as was done with this Act
  • those accused who remain in detention to be guaranteed a speedy trial
  • the immediate repeal of the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act and for a guarantee to a fair trial for everyone using the same evidence and procedural requirements and conditions for all;
  • the introduction for a criminal compensation law that would provide adequate compensation for all who have been wrongly detained wrongly, who at the end are found not guilty by the courts. This will at least bring about some justice to victims and their families, resulting from wrongful detention by the police/state
  • an improvement of prison conditions and a serious effort to reduce the prison population to a reasonable prison population rate
  • Malaysia to adhere to the 1990 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 45/111 Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, and also the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners

Charles Hector issued this statement on behalf of Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture (Madpet).

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