Singapore

Compulsive thieves ‘need help to prevent relapse’ - experts

Experts believe that people who feel compelled to steal need to continue seeking treatment outside of prison, especially since a thorough assessment could reveal underlying mental issues. They also called for the creation of a support group for such people.

On Monday, former engineer Goh Lee Yin, 36, fell to her death a day before a scheduled pre-trial conference to hear her criminal case for stealing.

It would have been the fourth time Ms Goh was facing such theft charges.

Dr Thomas Lee, a consultant psychiatrist at Novena Medical Centre, said close monitoring of those suffering from kleptomania can help them from relapsing. Kleptomania is the recurrent failure to resist urges to steal.

Senior consultant psychiatrist Munidasa Winslow agreed, and called for more thorough assessments.

"While those convicted may receive medication and eventually psychological therapy, some people face complex problems - such as developmental or personality issues - which may require more time to identify," he said.

Responding to queries, the Attorney-General's Chambers yesterday said Ms Goh was first convicted of theft in 2005, but her initial sentence of 2½ months was changed to two-years probation on appeal. As part of probation, she was required to get psychiatric treatment for kleptomania.

Ms Goh re-offended while on probation, but a day's imprisonment and fine was again replaced by a fresh probation order of 18 months on appeal.

In 2011, she was convicted again, and as a report on her suitability for probation was being prepared, she re-offended and was sentenced to six weeks' jail. The next year, she was convicted of two counts of cheating and sentenced to nine months' imprisonment, later cut by half on appeal.

Prior to her death, Ms Goh was facing nine charges, most of which were for theft.

Dr Lee said the justice system has evolved to better understand offenders with mental illnesses, and provide more suitable sentencing and rehabilitative options.

Since 2010, offenders suffering from mental health issues which have contributed to their offences can be given a Mandatory Treatment Order. This allows the court to order the offender to attend psychiatric treatment sessions instead serving a jail term.

The Straits Times understands that offenders with psychiatric conditions receive the necessary treatment during their stay in prison.

Upon release, these people will continue to need help.

Ms Tham Yuen Han, executive director of We Care Community Services, which runs a programme for those who feel compelled to shoplift, suggested that such cases can be handled more sensitively.

"When they get charged or arrested repeatedly, the sense of shame and helplessness can be immense. Exposing their identity can create distress. It then becomes a vicious cycle as they turn back to those compulsive behaviours to cope."

Ms Goh will be cremated today.

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