Thursday, January 8, 2009

Sichuan Expansion of Parole Worth Watching

An important expansion in the use of parole and other early release has been quietly taking place in Sichuan Province over the past six months, according to an in-depth report in the January 8, 2009, edition of The Beijing News (新京报). As of December 31, 2008, the Sichuan prison system had released more than 1,000 prisoners categorized as "elderly, infirm, or disabled." The article further suggests that even more releases can be expected in 2009.

This is a huge expansion in the use of parole in China. According to Sun Zeng of the Sichuan Province Prison Administration Bureau, China's annual parole rate typically does not exceed 3 percent, compared to 40 percent in some Western countries. In Sichuan, one of the most populous provinces with one of the largest prison populations in all of China, the past rate for parole has been a mere 0.2 percent. For example, in recent years only four or five prisoners from Chengdu Women's Prison were released on parole each year. Last year, 22 women either had the remainder of their sentences commuted or were released on parole.

Recognizing the challenges that thousands of prisoners who are too old or disabled to care for themselves pose to prison administration, last May provincial authorities took the initiative to draft regulations expanding the use of parole and non-custodial punishment for prisoners over the age of 65 (or 60 for women) who had served at least half of their sentences, the physically disabled, those who have difficulty caring for themselves, and those who are no longer able to perform labor. These prisoners still have to meet evaluative criteria for early release, show genuine repentance, and no longer pose a threat to society. In August, these regulations were jointly issued by the provincial higher people's court, procuratorate, public security department, and justice department.

The article notes that some have criticized the parole measure as prison authorities "casting off a burden," but Shang Aiguo of the Supreme People's Procuratorate sees parole of such prisoners as an opportunity for their families to provide them better care and medical treatment than they could receive in prison, while also allowing limited resources for correctional facilities to be deployed elsewhere. To be sure, the mass release of some of the most expensive prisoners to keep in custody has many practical benefits, but prison authorities are quick to point out that early release for these prisoners also promotes the development of a harmonious society.

Further support for the idea that parole and early release in Sichuan was intended to have wider social benefits can be seen in another group of prisoners who has benefitted recently: prisoners from the part of the province hardest hit by May 2008 earthquake. Also eligible for release under the new measures are individuals who because of losses sustained during the earthquake are needed at home to provide care to elderly parents or young or disabled children. More than 200 prisoners from Aba Prison, located in the earthquake zone, have already been released thanks to these measures.

It is important to note that this is not a relaxation of the standards for parole and early release, but rather an expansion of their application in accordance with existing laws to a broader group of prisoners. Prisoners are evaluated on their ability to admit guilt and show remorse, obey prison regulations, undergo "thought reform" and "reform through labor,"and obey work safety and personal hygiene standards. The legal procedure for parole remains unchanged: the prison makes its recommendation to the court, the court issues a decision under the supervision of the procuratorate, and after release the parolee is supervised by police.

According to Xu Haifa, who represents the Supreme People's Procuratorate at Hebei's Yancheng Prison, the biggest obstacle for the expansion of parole in China is the lack of supervisory capacity, as local police are already stretched thin carrying out other responsibilities. He points to the need for community corrections institution-building and the establishment of an agency dedicated to the supervision and guidance of parolees. This would enable more prisoners who no longer pose a threat to society to return to society without increasing the pressure on law enforcement.

It will be very interesting to see whether these measures in Sichuan serve as the basis for a greater expansion in the use of parole, sentence reduction, and other forms of early release nationwide. Certainly, the opportunity for China to reduce economic expenditures and promote a harmonious society could prove quite attractive to prison authorities in 2009.

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