Singaporean Law Professor Eugene Tan

In today’s golden age of technology, information rarely remains classified for too long. Thus, the boundaries of data circulation and consumption are a subject that weighs greatly on both governments and judicial systems. The dilemma presented by the question is whether every act of felony committed is meant for public consideration. ‘Publicly disclosed’ refers to the publication of sentences and details of the crime committed, to be promulgated through government sources such as the press and media. This essay will take the stance that crimes should be made public to a large extent because it fulfills the main goals in deterring potential criminals, cultivating a sense of security and ensuring the credibility of implemented laws.

Some might argue through a utilitarian approach that the threat of punishment created by publicising the punishment of crimes has the potential to produce a deterrence effect on future criminals. The belief of deterrence partly stems from the proposition of a famous philosopher, Beccaria, that “People are motivated to obtain pleasure and avoid pain”. He argues crimes can be deterred by increasing the certainty and severity of legal punishments. If we follow this belief in the context of deterrence, granting the public knowledge of the ramifications faced by criminals will evoke fear in potential offenders as the threat would seem more palpable when information about it is recognized (Wright, 2010). Bearing in mind, as sentient human beings, we are afraid of judgment and criticism ruining our reputation and social relationships. Hence, the act of publicizing information regarding the offenders’ punishment would dehumanize the perpetrator.

Moreover, it would impose an aversive emotion akin to a psychological punishment onto the offender. Thereby, people will unlikely want to end up in the same predicament as the offender, becoming more likely to refrain from committing the same crime. For example, Singapore has one of the lowest crime rates worldwide, as a result of their carefully upheld regulations that yield severe ramifications. In 1993, for instance, Micheal fay was an 18-year-old teenager who merely vandalised cars and stole road signs in Singapore. However, he was sanctioned to four months in jail, a $3,500 fine, and to be given 4 strokes of the rattan cane (Lee, 2018). The publicizing of such cases remind the public that there are implications for their actions. This ensures people are less likely to break the law as they know the punishment is severe and the chances of them getting caught are high. Which is why publicizing punishments deter others and serves as a reminder for potential criminals not to commit unlawful acts of crime.

Additionally, the public needs to be entitled to the knowledge on punishments meted out by the court; only then can the law preserve its credibility and is easy to enforce. By doing so, citizens who disagree with the meted punishments can voice their suggestions and opinions to the juridical system, to attain a common consensus between both parties. Ensuring the punishment of the crime is per the views of the public enables the judicial system to sanction an unbiased penalty on the perpetrator. Reason being, the publics’ views are potent in discerning whether a punishment is commensurate to the severity of the offense. For example, if punishment is too lenient or harsh, public outrage will draw attention to the case, forcing the judicial court to reconsider a more appropriate punishment.

Reinforcing this idea, Singaporean Law Professor Eugene Tan comments ‘The law is an ass if it dishes out a prescriptive set of punishments. If that’s the case, we might as well let a computer determine the punishment tariffs’ (Ng, 2017). Hence, there are various considerations to make when deciding whether to prosecute a criminal. Moreover, numerous informed views from the public would help to solicit a more just punishment for the offender. However, if the penalties do not reflect the voices of the public and of those who do not find it just, the law loses its credibility and would be viewed with contempt by the community. In 1991, for instance, Troy Davis was convicted of murder.

Despite the many protests of innocence, by the public, he was wrongfully convicted and executed in the American state of Georgia(“Troy Davis executed in Georgia amid innocence protests.”, 2011). The U.S. judicial system received backlash and many people were encouraged to continue fighting for the justice of other wrongfully convicted criminals. As a result, because the penalty did not reflect the weight of public opinion, the death penalty was largely criticized by citizens which resulted in the movement to abolish the death penalty. Hence, making the knowledge of the punishment public ensures governments sanction just and fair penalties, giving the law more credibility and making it easy to enforce.

However, the publicizing of all crimes may not necessarily be the best approach, as it would serve as a challenge for previous offenders to start a new life. Reason being that, when information on a crime is made public, the personal information of the convict is exposed to the general public (Goh, 2016). As a result, when these ex-convicts try to turn over a new leaf, many of them face problems integrating into society as society’s perception of them is likely to be influenced by their past criminal records. Having said that, despite the damage that publicising a crime may bring about to those previously convicted, it can be argued that ultimately, the public’s safety reigns greater importance than an individual’s (the criminal’s) wellbeing.

For instance, publicising information regarding punishments fosters a sense of security and maintains the trust of citizens in the government. Publicizing information makes the criminal justice system, more transparent and accountable to the public, reassuring citizens the government is taking responsibility and actions against offenders, instead of arbitrarily meting out punishments. It is, therefore, in the best interest of the justice system to gain people’s dependability by informing them of progress. Then, a resolution. This trust develops into motivation, encouraging citizens to proactively report crimes they have witnessed.

Hence, for example, instead of assuming, reporting a crime would be pointless and would solicit no repercussions, crimes would be more likely to be reported as the witnesses, the citizens, have faith the country’s criminal system will take punitive measures against offenders. For instance, a study found in the UK shows that 65% of the surveyed citizens felt deserving of more information regarding the sentences handed out to local offenders. In addition, only 24% showed satisfaction in the amount of information relayed( “Publicising criminal convictions: The importance of telling the public.”, 2009). Moreover, as quoted in a guidance manual for public authorities (“Publicising criminal outcomes.”, 2011) of the same country, the dissemination of information to the public can help “reassure the law-abiding public that the criminal justice system is fair and effective” and “increase public trust and confidence”.

This would, therefore, result in the hindrance of crime due to the decrease in the numbers of undetected offenses. Furthermore, publicizing information regarding criminal penalties would ensure that the public is exposed to petty crimes committed in their communities and would, therefore, be extra vigilant, increasing communal safety. Moreover, in the case of neighbourhood crimes, informing the public would allow them to feel safer as they would be more wary of perpetrators living near them. Hence, exposing the repercussions faced by criminals enables citizens to have confidence in their criminal system, which encourages public efforts to prevent crime and cultivates a sense of security in the community.

At the end of the day, the purpose of punishment is to reinforce justice in a society. However, it is challenging to ensure justice is adequately served, as judiciaries have to strike a balance between the public’s and the criminals’ welfare. While justice should be meted out, a certain degree of leniency should be given to convicts who are willing to turn over a new leaf. Allowing the information of punishment to be made public has the potential to lower crime rates and maintain the trust of citizens, in the government.