For Goodness’ Sake – Stop Jailing for Crimes of Poverty!

by Letchimi Devi

I was so angry when I read in an article  two days ago, that a 25-year-old woman with a 15-month-old baby was convicted on July 15, with a 10-day jail term for merely stealing napkins and baby food for her infant. Thank goodness it was reduced by the High Court to 5 days.

The mother is still breastfeeding her child of 15 months and she was destitute. Nothing could beat that, so who in their right mind will imprison them? This is not the first case, there are many more. In each case, I find the authorities involved act like they are ‘THE moral masters’.

“If you think, you are facing hardship, so are many others, don’t go and steal and trouble yourself and your family”, said the magistrate and then the persecutor, “the sentence must serve her a good lesson”. This is an incident reported in 2015. The person is already economically deprived and struggling to support the family. What worse trouble could one get into?

And the authorities further humiliate the by handcuffing, and the media published the picture!

Most of the similar cases involve parent(s) or unemployed persons imprisoned or fined for stealing Milo or baby food. Also, in most cases they receive no legal representation. So they confess and get imprisoned, not for stealing millions for a luxury life but negligible amount for bare basic needs out of desperation. Most of them also don’t have previous criminal record. In fact, the stolen things are returned to the owners, the supermarket. So, there is no loss to the supermarkets. After all they make thousands or millions in profit. Not to mention when supermarkets do waste and throw away expired items.

So, is justice served?

Rule of Law vs. Humanity

A friend said, “They are just following the law. We don’t want people to go around stealing, it will increase crime rate”. Really! Like we don’t have a sense of social justice,  and principles of justice are simply being followed and administered as it is in the law book?

20190724 - EE06.jpgI spotted this statement from Mr. Mohammed Hanipa Maidin of Amanah (the current Deputy Law Minister) that says the Magistrate could use Section 173A, instead of S.380 of the Penal Code. He was referring to an incident in 2/3/2016, where a 36 year old mother was fined RM200 (failing which 5 days imprisonment) and one day in prison for stealing a Milo packet to feed her child, age 2. He further elaborated that 173 CPC is called bond over. Under this section, the Magistrate may release a perpetrator by just warning the person on the basis of age, health, mental state of the offender or the trivial nature of the offense or the circumstances which may alleviate the punishment (extenuating circumstances).

Can this people who are now holding the power instill some perspective and bring some changes on how justice can be administered especially when it involves poverty and exploitation that led to petty crimes. Please, redefine crime.

Social Protection

This is  a failure of our social protection programme.  While poverty is not an excuse for crime, it’s also not an excuse for the judiciary system to look at the issue from a very narrow perspective. If people are desperate and end up committing the crime, then the judiciary must also involve the relevant government agencies (e.g. social welfare department, human resource ministry, local municipal) or maybe the Parliament member in charge of the constituency to take responsibility and find a solution. Just by making an order does not necessarily solve problems. If judges can just take this small extra step, then we will have a more humane solution to problems. The affected people, can also come out of the poverty and lead a better life.

Besides responding to the issue in a more ethical way, we also need to look at prevention. We need to address root causes and not find medicine for symptoms.

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This clippings talk about how the offender was not paid wages by her employer and she has no money to feed her baby. She has been feeding her child sugar syrup. I wonder if the employer was punished or summoned by the court.


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The offender is a single mother with six children. Was she not eligible to apply for welfare assistance? Perhaps if the social welfare department is situated in the court premises, the problem could have been approached differently.

20190724 - EE03.jpgIn terms of prevention, the government of the day, must increase minimum wage, control price of basic needs including rental of housing, public transport and medicine. When people’s cost of living is higher than their income, they go into debt and that creates another cycle of problem including no savings for emergency. Since inequities are unavoidable in the current system, then find different solution to handle crime for survival.  I cannot agree that everyone is equal before the law when in reality, the opportunities are not equal. You cannot put a millionaire and poor man in the same starting block and preach both have equal opportunity to prosper.

Government policies and the market system are creating a huge gap between the haves and have-nots. There are so many factors  that  contribute to inequality, including existing laws promoting discrimination.

Bharati the great Indian poet once said that when one person is poor in a society, the entire society is guilty and is to be blamed. Therefore if you don’t address the fundamental issue of inequality, then don’t complain if petty crime grows, you might be guilty as well.


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