by Elena Chong, Court Correspondent
A TEENAGE girl will now spend the next four years behind bars for her first criminal offences - helping loan sharks do their dirty work.
Nur Azilah Ithnin, who was chased out of her home and physically abused by her father, was on the payroll of two loan sharks whom she knew only as 'Storm' and 'Seven'.
They paid the 16-year-old up to $50 for each debtor she harassed and $150 more for every place she set on fire.
She committed a dozen such offences until she was caught on June 22.
The heavy sentence meted out to the young girl comes in the wake of an alarming surge in the number of young offenders arrested for loan-sharking offences.
Citing police figures, Deputy Public Prosecutor Mohamed Faizal said last month that there had been a sharp rise over the past two years of youth involvement in loan shark syndicates.
In the first six months of this year, 81 youths were arrested for such activities. The number was 21 over the same period last year. In 2006, it was only 12.
DPP Faizal said reformative training - usually for those aged 21 or below - was not an option for Nur Azilah.
The prosecutor said some youths, 'safe in the knowledge that they would almost invariably be given probation or reformative training', have not been sufficiently deterred from such offences.
Being lenient would have the undesirable effect of encouraging syndicates to continue employing young offenders, he added, calling for a strong deterrent signal from the court to warn such youths that they will not get off lightly by virtue of their age or clean record.
Nur Azilah, who did not have a lawyer, pleaded guilty to three counts each of harassing debtors, setting fires at various locations and attempting to set fires. She could have been fined up to $40,000 and jailed for up to three years for harassment and up to seven years for mischief by fire.
Besides torching shoe racks and doors outside several flats, she also splashed paint and scribbled graffiti on the walls.
DPP Faizal told the court that by setting fires outside flat doors, she had callously targeted the only escape routes and had put the lives of both the victim and residents in adjoining flats in danger.
The prosecutor said her wanton disregard for the safety of flat-dwellers and her willingness to undertake such life-risking activities for greed called for an extremely tough stance.
'There is a considerable need to impress upon the youth in Singapore who might otherwise be enticed by the lure of easy money that working for an unlicensed moneylender constitutes a very serious offence, and is not the right way to earn money.'
Lawyers noted that previously, young loan-shark runners were given probation or reformative training.
Mr Edmond Pereira said the court could have looked at other options, such as some kind of reformation in an institution first. Girls such as Nur Azilah might not fully realise the consequences of their actions, he said.
Mr Pereira added: 'The sentencing court should look to imprisonment only as a last resort. If there are other avenues available, they should explore those and allow that person to be reformed first.'
Mr R.S. Wijaya, a lawyer with 29 years' experience, said: 'Any policy consideration, while relevant in the present considerations, has to be balanced with the offender's unique personal circumstances, bearing in mind she is a youthful offender.'
Lawyer Amolat Singh, though, felt the court's sentence was a clear and strong message to the real perpetrators that they could not hide behind the youth of these people. 'When the need arises, when the public policy element is very strong, there is a need to stamp out this menace. Then the Community Court will not hesitate to mete out stiff sentences,' he said.
Meanwhile, police arrested eight people aged 19 to 33 for loan-shark activities in an islandwide raid at various public housing estates on Wednesday.
In a separate roadblock, police nabbed another three suspected loan-shark runners, aged between 24 and 30, along Sembawang Road early on Wednesday.
The car they were in contained $11,000 in cash and papers believed to contain debtor records. Also found were marker pens, bottles of paint, a bicycle padlock and a pair of gloves.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.