Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Chinese Officials Struggle to Counter Juvenile Crime Without Relying on Harsh Punishment

A juvenile judge in Anhui speaks with young offenders. Photo Credit: Guoyang County Court

At a press conference in May, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) announced that nearly 30 percent of juvenile arrests and over eight percent of juvenile indictments in China were not approved in 2015, compared with 18 percent and five percent in 2012 (see chart below). Between 2003-2015, 14.8% of 1.08 million individual juvenile arrests were rejected, as were 4.4% of the 1.13 million individual indictments.

Avoiding harsh measures against juveniles reflects a changing legal framework since a separate juvenile justice section was included in the amended Criminal Procedure Law (CPL), effective since 2013. In the years following the CPL amendments, Chinese courts have emphasized the importance of an independent and standardized juvenile justice system, with an “education first” approach that features practices like mentoring and criminal record sealing.

In addition to lower rates of arrest and indictment, non-custodial measures are a major part of this approach. In 2015, Chinese courts handed down non-custodial (fei jianjin xing) or punishment exemption (mianyu xingshi chufa) measures to 48 percent of juvenile defendants. These non-custodial figures compare to 41.75 percent of defendants in 2012, as reported by the Supreme People’s Court Research Office, and 35.56 percent of defendants in 2010, according to the official compendium China Juvenile Justice (Zhongguo shaonian sifa). SPP measures on juveniles claim that this approach is designed to embody an “educational, corrective, and protective” approach.

Prosecution of Juveniles in China, 2012-2015

Sources: SPP; Dui Hua

Rising Violence Among China’s Youth

The use of non-custodial juvenile justice measures is not without its obstacles. Although it appears that juvenile crime in China has fallen overall during the past 10 years, violent crime committed by juveniles has continued to rise, offenders are getting younger, and gangs are more prevalent. According to Wang Wei, Deputy Chief of the Shanxi Province People’s Procuratorate Juvenile Division, juvenile offenders younger than 15 are increasingly common. Many procurators and scholars, Wang Wei among them, also believe that family troubles, especially social problems of “left behind children” and migrant youth, contribute substantially to these new trends in juvenile crime. Data from China’s most recent (2010) census show that over 60 million children were left behind in their rural hometowns as their parents became migrant workers in more urban areas. These children represent just under two-fifths of China’s rural child population and over one-fifth of the total child population. A report sponsored by Beijing Normal University and UNICEF concluded that left behind children are over 70% more likely to offend than other children with similar characteristics.

In July and August of 2016, provinces including Hubei and Shanxi introduced legislation and other changes to the judicial system intended to protect this at-risk population, and provinces with similarly high populations of migrants and left-behind children may well follow suit. Although increased attention towards providing more social services and monitoring to these young offenders is commendable, the disproportionate conviction rates and other persistent inequities faced by migrants and their children could indicate difficulty finding long-term, sustainable solutions for the increasing proportion of juvenile crime that is young, violent, and gang-related.

Juvenile Offenders and Media Control

Included among the responses of Chinese authorities to these broader trends in juvenile crime and justice administration are new requirements that limit the scope of juvenile crime reporting. In mid-2015, the State Internet Information Office (SIIO) promulgated a “Notice on Further Strengthening Management of Online Reporting of Juvenile Crime and Bullying Incidents,” which had followed sensationalist online reporting on upticks in serious juvenile crime. The notice lists several requirements, including that “websites shall not place reporting of juvenile crimes […] on their homepages or news channel headlines and shall not suggest related content in blogs, microblogs, forums, postings, pop-ups, navigation bars, search engines, or other such positions." Non-compliant outlets face “formal censure meetings, warnings, fines and other disposition methods, including revocation of website news service credentials, [which] may be imposed, according to the law[.]”

Unsurprisingly, major news outlets such as Xinhua and Legal Daily seem to have largely complied with the notice, removing their customary, “related content” sidebars for reports on juvenile delinquency, and they have also deleted many suggested search terms related to juvenile offending from drop-down menus. When the notice was introduced a year ago, commentators noted that its intent was to stem public fears of a juvenile violence epidemic, emphasizing that the protection of children’s privacy and dignity is paramount; however, the rules might have a pernicious side effect--silencing productive discussion on juvenile crime and infringing the public’s right to know.

A year later, the unintended effects seem to have dominated. Judging from aggregate data, the notice has had no discernable effects on either media mentions or public interest in juvenile crime, whereas it has limited access to objective reporting on the topic. Given that procuratorial officials like Wang Wei have recognized juvenile crime as a social and a legal problem, the SIIO’s restrictions go too far in limiting the discussion of potential solutions to the complex difficulties facing youth in conflict with the law.