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Speech by the Secretary for Security


Following is the full text of speech by the Secretary for Security, Mrs Regina Ip, at the International Conference on "Offender Rehabilitation in the 21st Century" today (December 2):

Chief Justice, President Jin, President Wong, Chairman Leong, Mr Yiu, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to be here today to officiate at the opening ceremony of this Conference and to address distinguished guests and delegates such as your goodselves from different parts of the world. May I extend my warmest welcome to you all.

The title of this Conference is "Offender Rehabilitation in the 21st Century". I would like to say a few words first on offender rehabilitation in general before focussing on offender rehabilitation in Hong Kong in the 21st century.

Crime and misdemeanours are unfortunately an unavoidable part of any society, and so are offenders. From time immemorial, societies all over the world have had to handle people who have breached the criminal code. One primary sanction that has survived history is penal custody, i.e. putting people behind bars. The primary objective of this and other punitive sanctions is retribution, to "right" the "wrong" done to the victims and the state. They also serve the purposes of deterring others from committing the same crime and deterring the offender himself or herself.

In today's increasingly humanitarian world, we have come to recognise that there is more that the state could do to offenders other than locking them away. Societies are now focusing on how best to re-integrate them into society, and to reduce the chance of re-offending, for the good of society and the offenders themselves. Indeed, as societies become more civilised and sophisticated, and as our understanding of human nature deepens, rehabilitation of offenders has become an integral part of criminal justice systems around the world. Rightly so, as no one should be treated as a lost cause and beyond redemption. But while the importance of rehabilitation is accepted by many, the ways of achieving it vary from place to place. There is much room for cross-fertilisation of ideas among governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to enhance the overall effectiveness of offender rehabilitation. There is also a growing call for the formulation of a common agenda for offender rehabilitation to address universal issues.

I must therefore congratulate the China Prison Society and the Society of Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention, Hong Kong on their good work in organising this meaningful and timely event. First of its kind to be held in the region, this Conference has gathered over 200 distinguished professionals from different parts of the world to share their precious experiences.

I am also delighted that Hong Kong has the honour and privilege of hosting this inaugural event. Hong Kong not only subscribes to, but is also a keen proponent of the concept of rehabilitation of offenders. One of the primary tasks of our correctional services is to provide the best possible opportunity for all the inmates to make a new start in life. To achieve this, a three-pronged approach has been pursued - to improve the legal framework, to enhance service delivery and to strive for community support.

First, on improving the legal framework, our penal system is underpinned by legislation and subject to the rule of law. Continuous efforts are being made to improve the legal framework to keep up with the times. For example, legislation has been passed to provide for more sentencing options other than fine and imprisonment to meet the needs of different types of offenders. This includes the successful and increasing use of Community Service Orders since 1984. A few months ago, a brand new correctional programme for young offenders was implemented. Under this programme, the young inmates receive discipline training in a correctional institution in the first two to five months. In the following few months, they are transferred to a half-way house for attending school or work during the day. We believe that such a community-based programme can fill a gap between traditional custodial programmes and non-custodial measures such as probation order.

The same principle premised on rehabilitation considerations is behind a bill which was introduced into the Legislative Council earlier this year to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from seven to ten years of age. This is in response to research findings that a child at ten or below is unlikely to be able to judge right from wrong and to fully appreciate the serious consequence of his action. It is also argued that subjecting a young child to the full panoply of the criminal justice system is neither fair nor in the interests of the child. It is far more important, and probably rewarding, to rehabilitate the child through various non-penal measures than to seek conviction and punishment which could bring disproportionate, life-long stigma.

On the service delivery front, the Correctional Services Department plays a primary role in taking care of offenders sentenced to imprisonment. Since its establishment in 1841, the Department has undergone major transformation. Its responsibility has gone beyond incarceration to put a clear focus on rehabilitation. Two major milestones mark this evolution process. The first is the change of name from the original "Prisons Department" to the present one in 1982, which signifies a basic change in philosophy in penology in Hong Kong. The second is the establishment of a full-fledged, dedicated Rehabilitation Division in 1998, following which many more specialised rehabilitation services have been introduced. For example, we have launched the Substance Abuse Awareness and Prevention Programme for inmates with addictive behaviour. In respect of education and training, we have taken steps to modernise correctional education for young offenders so as to help them to gain admission to mainstream schools or vocational training institutes after discharge. Enhancement of vocational training courses has been underway since 2000 to enable young offenders to gain external accreditation such as Pitman or City and Guilds qualifications.

I mentioned earlier that our three-pronged approach to rehabilitation includes active lobbying for community support. This is because the rehabilitation efforts made by the Administration and the offenders themselves are not adequate. In order to be successful, we also need the support of voluntary organisations, religious bodies and the general public. At present more than 20 NGOs and religious bodies work with the Correctional Services Department in providing services to help prisoners re-integrate into the community. The services provided include counselling, employment and accommodation assistance, and recreational and religious activities. Special mention ought to be made of the Society of Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention, one of the two organisers of this Conference. Established in 1957, the Society has long played a pioneering role in rendering assistance and service to prisoners. I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere appreciation to the Society for its good work and invaluable contributions. But at the end of the day, it is the community at large which needs to accept the rehabilitated offenders and give them the chance to pursue a new life. To this end, we have and will continue to focus efforts on re-integration strategies and promoting community support through education, publicity and public involvement.

To conclude, I believe Hong Kong can justifiably claim to have a modern, civilised and comprehensive penal system which has come a long way in meeting the changing needs of our community. Our emphasis is on offender rehabilitation. I note that part of the Conference programme is a visit to our correctional institutions. I urge you to make full use of the opportunity to see this for yourselves, and to let us have your valuable feedback as to how we could do our job better.

I would now like to declare the Conference open. I wish it a great success, and I hope all will enjoy taking part in it. Thank you.

End/Monday, December 2, 2002


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