Should judges punish young offenders too harshly?

October 05, 2023 22:11

There is an American saying that if you do the crime, you do the time. This means if you are convicted of a crime, you must spend jail time. How much time a convicted person spends in jail depends on which law the criminal broke and how the judge rules.

Some judges throw the book at those found guilty, regardless of age. Others give deeper thought to how a tough sentence could affect the future of young offenders after they are released from prison.

A recent court ruling just one week after I returned to Hong Kong so disturbed me that I felt I must pick up my pen again. The case involved Cheung Chi-hin, an 18-year-old who was just 15 when a friend asked him to pack and deliver ketamine for $500 each time. He did it to help his ailing father and jobless mother who were in financial despair during the pandemic.

Police arrested the 15-year-old in June 2021 after he left a drug packing flat which contained ketamine worth $1.7 million. Judge Judianna Wai-ling Barnes threw the book at him last month after finding him guilty. She jailed the 18-year-old for 11 years after giving him a discount of 5.5 years for his guilty plea.

There is nothing wrong with criminals doing jail time, but I feel judges should show compassion when jailing young offenders, especially when there are extenuating circumstances. Cheung's grandparents raised him while his parents were busy with work. He quit school at an early age.

He was not the mastermind of the drug operation, just a boy who wanted to help his struggling parents. These are clear mitigating factors. It is a pity Judge Barnes didn't show more compassion. She instead advised Cheung to focus on education while in jail and lead a law-abiding life when released.

Sky Siu, executive director of the NGO KELY Support Group, is perturbed at the harsh sentence. She told RTHK there is ample evidence that jailing youngsters under 21 would harm their future and could make them re-offend when they leave prison.

I hope Cheung doesn't re-offend but his case reminds me of the many young people who are now doing lengthy jail time for their role in the 2019 social unrest. Will they re-offend when they are released? Hopefully not. Will they become good citizens? Hopefully yes.

Harsh sentences for young offenders have a downside but that doesn't mean youngsters convicted of extreme violence should receive undue leniency. A sentence should fit the crime.

But many in society expect judges to give youngsters who are not hardened criminals, be they drug packers or protesters, a second chance in handing down sentences. Cheung unfortunately received a harsher sentence than many of the 2019 protesters.

As I have said before, society needs to dissect why so many youngsters turned violent during the 2019 unrest. They did so only after former chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor ignored mass but peaceful protests urging her to withdraw her ill-fated extradition bill.

I doubt that is arguable as a mitigating factor. No accused, to my knowledge, has used it as such. No national security judge, to my knowledge, has used it to show leniency.

As a Hong Kong-born American who has spent a long time recently in the US, I should note the consensus in the West is that the Hong Kong judiciary is getting less independent. I know that is not entirely correct, but perception is reality.

Changing that perception requires soul searching. I didn't support the 2019 violence, as I said in my columns and TV shows. But I did ask why so many young people used it to fight for their cause.

In a column here last year I quoted Judge Ernest Lin Kam-hung who said, in jailing eight young protesters related to the 2019 Polytechnic University siege, that they were not evil but were influenced by a polarized society.

Hong Kong, like the US, is politically polarized. That polarization is openly acknowledged in the US. It was acknowledged here too before and during the 2019 protests. But it is no longer visible now that most opposition parties have disappeared.

That doesn't mean Hong Kong has suddenly become a harmonious society. There is still an undercurrent of discontent which needs to be assuaged.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.