The most important events on China's political calendar -- the annual sessions of the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Consultative Congress (CPPCC) -- concluded in Beijing on March 16, 2016.
The heads of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and Supreme People’s Court (SPC) presented their work reports to the NPC. These reports, and the subsequent resolutions to accept them, represent one of the main ways in which the NPC performs its constitutional duty to oversee China’s two nominally independent legal institutions.
The reports typically include statistical data, including figures on arrests, convictions, and acquittals. Although not presented in detail, these data can be used to track the performance and priorities of China’s legal system, like trends in “endangering state security” crimes.
Many NPC delegates seem to pay close attention to these figures as measures of effectiveness in fighting serious crime. If the numbers are not to their liking, some will vote against the reports as a symbolic way of voicing dissatisfaction. An interesting take-away from the SPC report is that the number of acquittals rose from 778 in 2014 (a rate of 0.066 percent for all cases adjudicated) to 1039 in 2015 (a rate of 0.084 percent).
In the weeks preceding the national “two meetings,” courts and procuratorates at lower administrative levels also present work reports to people’s congresses at the provincial, prefecture, and county levels.
Recently, reporters at online news journal The Paper observed the low number of acquittals reported by provincial courts in 2015 and asked legal experts how to reconcile these figures with increased attention to wrongful convictions. The experts pointed to many of the same explanations raised in an analysis of acquittals done by researchers at the Guangdong High People’s Court—performance measures based on conviction rates, “coordination” between law-enforcement institutions, and resolution of problematic cases through means other than acquittal. Some expressed optimism that China’s acquittal rates would start to approach more “normal” levels as a result of recent legal reforms aimed at strengthening the judicial process and reducing the pressure that comes from distortionary performance metrics.
Wang Lin, a frequent commentator on legal issues and professor at Hainan University Law School, took up this issue in a recent column in the Beijing Times. He, too, thinks that recent reforms are likely to reverse the long-term decline in China’s acquittal rates. The title of Wang’s piece poses a provocative question: “Are You Ready for a Rise in the Acquittal Rate?”
This question is significant. Chinese leaders are concerned about the negative impact that miscarriages of justice and wrongful convictions have on popular assessments of the criminal justice system. For decades, however, the stress has mainly been on the effectiveness and efficiency of that system in fighting crime and promoting stability and security. It comes down to a need to make choices, as Professor Chen Ruihua put it in an interview last year, between “the risk of being unable to fight crime [and] the social damage caused by wrongful convictions.”
Professor Chen expressed optimism that public rights consciousness was helping to shift the balance in the direction of the procedural justice that would help protect against wrongful conviction. Professor Wang, who has closely observed the influence of China’s mercurial public opinion on criminal justice, appears a bit more ambivalent. Both would no doubt agree that if either Chinese law enforcement bodies or the Chinese public—or both—isn’t “ready” to see more criminal defendants proclaimed innocent by the country’s courts, then efforts to reform the judicial system may have limited impact.
Are You Ready for a Rise in the Acquittal Rate?
Beijing Times, February 23, 2016
As we enter this year’s “two meetings” period, provincial courts and procuratorates have been presenting their work reports around the country. A report in the media added up figures from 14 provincial-high-court work reports to reveal that these courts convicted 721,000 individuals and acquitted 543 individuals, for an average acquittal rate of 0.075 percent.
According to past work reports from the Supreme People’s Court, China’s acquittal rate has been gradually declining over the recent decade, reaching 0.066 percent in 2014. Of the extremely limited number of acquittals each year, more than 80 percent occur in cases in which individuals brought prosecutions directly to the court. In cases brought to court by public prosecutors, the acquittal rate has fallen from 0.296 percent in 2001 to 0.018 percent in 2010.
One can generally expect that when prosecutors bring a criminal case to court, there will be a conviction. Otherwise, why would they prosecute the case? A high conviction rate in publicly prosecuted cases ought to be the norm. If there’s not enough reliable evidence to prove that these convictions were decided unjustly, we shouldn’t criticize the fact that the acquittal rate is extremely low. “Presumption of innocence” is a fundamental principle of criminal justice. If a criminal justice system has a low acquittal rate, one shouldn’t automatically conclude that the rate of wrongful convictions is high.
Therefore, even though the acquittal rate in common-law jurisdictions is around 25 percent, around 5 percent in civil law countries, and 3.7 percent in Taiwan, one cannot conclude that our extremely low acquittal rate in publicly prosecuted cases must be a problem. There are reasons to doubt the accuracy of a low acquittal rate, however, since it’s only after a miscarriage of justice is reversed that one can say, legally speaking, that a past conviction was made in error.
For a long time, court work reports at various levels rarely touched upon wrongful convictions. Over the past two years, there’s been a lot of effort to reopen cases and overturn wrongful convictions. The public has made widespread note of these efforts, and some courts have begun including information about remedying such cases in their reports. As far as the public is concerned, “justice delayed is better than justice denied,” and when justice is overturned it’s thought of as a bit of luck for the exoneree amid his or her great misfortune. Praising courts for the courage to remedy their mistakes also carries important significance, as it stirs up other “highly suspected wrongful convictions” that have run into so many obstacles on the road to justice.
For those 14 provincial jurisdictions, last year’s acquittal rate represents a slight increase over the national rate for 2014. There is reason to expect evidence of an even higher increase when the SPC and SPP present their data during the March “two meetings.” This is because the Central Politico-Legal Commission gave clear orders at the beginning of 2015 that central and local law enforcement institutions were to carry out a comprehensive inventory of all performance indicators and eliminate unreasonable indicators such as the number of criminal detentions, arrest approval rate, indictment rate, conviction rate, or case clearance rate. If high conviction rates (in other words, low acquittal rates) were considered “hard” targets in the past and if these performance indicators could “forcibly” turn what ought to be acquittals into convictions, then once you’ve gotten rid of these irrational performance indicators a rise in the acquittal rate should follow as a matter of course.
Once the policy has been set at the top, you have to wait and see how it’s implemented at the local level. First, though, we should ask both law enforcement bodies and the general public this question: “Are you prepared for a rise in the acquittal rate?”