Understanding The Four Principles Of Sentencing In Singapore Criminal Law

The Four Classical Principles Of Sentencing

In Singapore, the court relies on the four principles of sentencing to decide on the appropriate sentence for an offender. These principles are deterrence, retribution, prevention, and rehabilitation. In this article, we will explain each of these principles. Understanding these principles will enable accused persons to defend their interests and better accept the sentence imposed by the court.

In deciding the appropriate sentence, the court looks to these four principles, and decide which one (or perhaps two in some cases) should be the dominant principle. The principle(s) that is most relevant and has the greatest importance in a case would necessarily affect the type and extent of sentence imposed.

In every case, the court strives to achieve a proper balance of the applicable principles of these four pillars of sentencing. The sentence imposed on the offender not only serves to punish him, it also seeks to deter potential offenders through fear of punishment, and to influence offenders who have been appropriately sentenced not to offend again.

Importance Of Understanding These Sentencing Principles

A comprehensive understanding of the four principles of sentencing is crucial for an accused person to effectively defend his interests in court. It is imperative to speak the language of the court to increase the likelihood of being heard.

Depending on which principle the court deems dominant, certain types of sentences are more likely to be ordered. For example, if deterrence is the dominant principle, the court is less likely to order probation, as it is not seen as having a sufficient deterrent effect. In contrast, if rehabilitation is the dominant principle, the court is far more likely to order probation.

By understanding these principles, an accused person can more effectively argue for a specific type of sentence, increasing the likelihood of an outcome that is favourable to him.

Moreover, understanding the principles of sentencing allows the accused person to better comprehend and accept the final sentence imposed, recognizing that it is for the greater public interest. While it is understandable that the accused would prefer a lighter sentence, it is crucial for them to learn from their mistake and avoid future offences.

We will now examine each of these sentencing principles in detail.


Deterrence theory is a concept in criminology that suggests that people will be deterred from committing crimes if they believe that the punishment they will receive is severe enough to outweigh the benefits of committing the crime. This sentencing principle has been the cornerstone of our courts’ sentencing jurisprudence as a means of crime control in Singapore.

There are two aspects to deterrence: specific and general deterrence.

Specific deterrence refers to the deterrence of the offender. It operates through the discouraging effects felt when an offender experiences the punishment, and seeks to instil the fear of re-offending through the threat of re-experiencing the same punishment. Specific deterrence is usually most appropriate in instances where the crime is premeditated.

General deterrence refers to the deterrence of likely offenders. It aims to educate and deter other like-minded members of the general public by making an example of a particular offender. The courts have generally turned to general deterrence as the dominant sentencing principle in many types of offences such as:

  • Offences against or relating to public institutions;
  • Offences against vulnerable victims;
  • Offences involving professional or corporate integrity or abuse of authority;
  • Offences affecting public safety, public health, public services, public or widely used facilities or public security;
  • Offences affecting the delivery of financial services and/or the integrity of the economic infrastructure;
  • Offences involving community and/or race relations.

Circumstances of an offence may also attract general deterrence. Such circumstances include:

  • Prevalence of the offence;
  • Group/syndicate offences;
  • Public disquiet;
  • Difficulty of detection and/or apprehension;
  • Offences affecting several victims.

The essence of the retributive principle is that the offender must pay for what he has done. The idea is that punishment restores the just order of society which has been disrupted by his crime.

It follows that the punishment must reflect and befit the seriousness of the crime. The seriousness of crime relates to the degree of harmfulness of the conduct, and the extent of the offender’s culpability when committing the conduct.


The idea behind prevention, or incapacitation, is that the most effective way to deal with criminal offenders is to remove them from society. The goal is to prevent offenders from committing further crimes by keeping them away from potential victims. This is usually done by means of imprisonment.

This principle is especially relevant when dealing with repeat offenders. If the court believes that they are likely to commit crimes again if they are not incarcerated, prevention may be the dominant sentencing principle.


The principle of rehabilitation is based on the idea that offenders can be reformed through appropriate treatment and training. This principle recognizes that many offenders commit crimes because of underlying issues such as addiction, mental illness, or lack of education and skills. By addressing these issues, offenders can learn to lead law-abiding lives and contribute to society.

Rehabilitation promotes public safety by reducing the likelihood of reoffending. If offenders are able to address the underlying issues that led to their criminal behaviour, they are less likely to commit crimes in the future. This benefits not only the offender but also society as a whole.

The principle of rehabilitation in sentencing is generally considered to be the dominant principle when the offender is young, specifically, when he is below 21 years of age. That is the starting point. If the prosecution wishes to argue that the dominant sentencing principle should be, for instance, deterrence, when the offender is below 21 years of age, the onus is on the prosecution to explain the reasons for that position, and persuade the court.

This principle and position taken by the courts is a reflection of

  • young offenders’ generally lower culpability due to their immaturity;
  • their enhanced prospects of rehabilitation;
  • society’s interest in rehabilitating them;
  • the recognition that the prison environment may have a corrupting influence on young offenders, who are more impressionable and susceptible to bad influence than older offenders.

The four principles of sentencing are deterrence, retribution, prevention, and rehabilitation. The court takes into account the facts of the case and decides which principle(s) should be the dominant one(s) for each case. Understanding these principles is essential for an accused person to defend their interests and achieve the best possible outcome. While the goal of punishment is to deter and punish the offender, it also aims to prevent future crimes and rehabilitate offenders to lead law-abiding lives.

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