Monday, October 23, 2023

Turning over a New Leaf: Juvenile Offenders Benefit from Reform

The delegation from China's Supreme People's Court visiting the Juvenile Court of the City and County of San Francisco during Dui Hua’s first expert exchange in 2008. Image credit: Dui Hua 

This year marks the 15th anniversary of Dui Hua’s first expert exchange with the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) on juvenile justice, an area of concern around the globe. Beginning in 2008, Dui Hua has hosted US-China expert exchanges related to juvenile justice, women in prison, girls in conflict with the law, and child welfare. In April 2023, Dui Hua hosted “Topics in Juvenile Justice Reform: A Sino-American Exchange,” the ninth exchange involving the SPC. These exchanges address one of the few areas of human rights issues where the United States and China still engage in dialogue, in this case a dialogue that contributes to justice system reform.

Lower Convictions for Juveniles 

Statistics released by the SPC and Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) in 2022 reveal a continuous drop in juvenile convictions, falling by more than 50 percent since 2013. The statistics also show a sharp uptick in the number of juveniles given non-arrest and non-prosecution decisions, as well as an increase in the number of juvenile records sealed. This progress in restorative justice for juveniles has occurred in the decade since China added a new section to the Criminal Procedure Law that incorporated provisions for conditional non-prosecution, record sealing, and more non-custodial measures – topics that were discussed during Dui Hua’s US-China expert exchanges.

Table 1. Total Convictions & Juvenile Convictions

Source: National Court Judicial Statistics Bulletin 2002-2022

In 2022, the number of juvenile convictions reached a record low, with only 27,757 juveniles tried nationwide. The percentage of juvenile convictions reached its peak at 9.79 percent in 2005 and remained at around 9 percent through 2008. This surge alarmed the Chinese government, and calls for juvenile justice reform increased. In 2007, senior Chinese prosecutor Dan Wei told Dui Hua executive director John Kamm that reforming the juvenile justice system had become a priority for senior leaders. The exchanges kicked off with an invitation to the SPC to study juvenile justice in the United States.

Following the first exchange, juvenile convictions continued to decrease year-by-year. Convictions fell below 5 percent for the first time in 2013, after the revised Criminal Procedure Law came into force and codified the principle of prioritizing education over punishment. Over the last decade, the number of juvenile convictions decreased by more than 50 percent from 63,782 in 2012 to 27,757 in 2022.

Of those 27,757 juveniles, 2,063 were girls. The number of convicted girls increased from 1,570 in 2016 to 3,321 in 2019 but dropped below 2,500 in 2020 and further to 2,000 in 2022. Despite this decrease, the number of girls convicted as a percentage of juvenile convictions has remained above 7 percent since 2019, up from 3.58 percent in 2013.

Table 2. Total, Juvenile & Girl Convictions

Source: National Court Judicial Statistics Bulletin 2002-2022

Collective Efforts

Besides fewer juvenile convictions, the SPP works in tandem with the SPC to incorporate restorative practices into its operations by approving fewer juvenile arrests and prosecutions. In 2022, prosecutors accepted and examined arrests for 49,070 minors, a drop from 55,379 in 2021. It is a sizable increase from 2020’s figure of 37,681. The approval rate for arrests of juvenile suspects in 2022 reached a record low of 31.5 percent. Of those, prosecutors approved arrests of about 15,000 minors while disapproving arrests of 34,000. The disapproval rate rose incrementally every year from 26.7 percent in 2014 to 39.1 percent in 2020. This rate exceeded 50 percent for the first time in 2021 and reached another peak of 68.5 percent in 2022.

In the first six months of 2023, prosecutors disapproved the arrests of 20,000 juveniles. The disapproval is 67.9 percent, on par with the 2022 level.

Table 3. Juvenile Arrests Disapproved

Source: White Paper on Prosecutorial Practice for Minors 2014-2022

The prosecution rate for juvenile suspects in 2022 was 47.6 percent. The number of juveniles accepted and examined for prosecution decreased year-by-year from 77,405 in 2014 to 58,307 in 2018. In 2022, the number rose back to 78,467, exceeding the 2014 prosecution rate. Despite the increase, a growing number of juvenile delinquents have been given non-prosecution over the years. In 2022, prosecutors approved the prosecution of 28,000 juveniles and disapproved 41,000 prosecutions. The disapproval rate reached a record high of 59.9 percent, up from 10.3 percent in 2013. In just one year, the number of juveniles given non-prosecution nearly doubled from 22,585 in 2021 to 41,000 in 2022.

The non-prosecution rate in the first six months of 2023 was 56.7 percent, with a total of 18,000 juveniles given non-prosecution.

 Table 4. Juvenile Prosecutions Disapproved

Source: White Paper on Prosecutorial Practice for Minors 2014-2022

Of particular significance is the wider use of conditional non-prosecution, known in the United States as diversion. In 2022, 26,161 juvenile cases were diverted, and the application rate of diversion rose year-to-year from 20.8 percent in 2020 to 29.6 percent in 2021, and to 36.1 percent in 2022. In 2013, diversion was incorporated into the Criminal Procedure Law. Since 2014, the number of juveniles offered conditional non-prosecution increased eightfold.

Table 5. Juvenile Delinquents Given Conditional Non-Prosecution

Source: White Paper on Prosecutorial Practice for Minors 2014-2022

Sealing Records

Record sealing was incorporated into the Criminal Procedure Law in 2013, and prior to that it was a major topic of discussion during the expert exchanges hosted by Dui Hua. Dui Hua was assisted in preparing and conducting the exchanges by Judge Leonard Edwards of Santa Clara County, California. Judge Edwards (retired) is a recognized expert in juvenile justice in general and the sealing of juvenile records in particular.

In China, the practice of sealing juvenile records mandates that a juvenile offender’s records be sealed after they successfully complete the probation period called for by conditional non-prosecution orders issued by the procuratorate, provided that the juvenile observes the conditions of non-prosecution and does not commit new crimes. The SPP has disclosed nationwide figures on how this restorative measure has been implemented. A total of 92,694 juveniles had their records sealed from 2020-2022. In 2022, 33,021 juvenile records were sealed, an increase from 28,163 in 2020 and 31,510 in 2021. In May 2022, the SPC, SPP and Ministry of Public Security promulgated Implementation Measures for Sealing Juvenile Criminal Records, which provides detailed standards and operational procedures for sealing juvenile criminal records.

The drop in juvenile arrests, prosecutions, and convictions in 2022 signals a more progressive approach to juvenile justice. Although public sentiment continues to support more punitive approaches such as lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 14 to 12 in 2020, the Chinese government increasingly emphasizes rehabilitation and education as the first response to juvenile offenders. The Law on Protection of Minors, revised in 2020, refined the family guardianship system by improving guardianship measures, establishing a mandatory reporting system, and creating an information inquiry system for offenders. The law also provided more guidance on prevention and response measures for internet addiction, campus bullying, new offenses, and parental legal obligations. In the same year, the revised Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Law focused on prevention rather than punitive measures by stressing education, mental health, reduction of bullying, and multi-institutional collaboration to reduce juvenile delinquency.

Building Safer Systems for All

A notable omission of both laws is that they do not address gender-specific needs. It is increasingly recognized that rehabilitating girl offenders requires different approaches than those applied to boys. To raise awareness of the need for gender-specific treatment, Dui Hua formally expanded its mission in 2014 to include women and girls in conflict with the law. Later that year, Dui Hua co-hosted an international symposium on women in prison, facilitating discussions and capacity building on the Bangkok Rules, a set of regulations that provide guidance for policy makers, legislators, sentencing authorities and prison staff to meet the specific needs of women detainees and to reduce overall female imprisonment. As part of this campaign, with permission from Penal Reform International, Dui Hua released a Chinese translation of "Neglected needs: girls in the criminal justice system in 2018." The 12-webinar International Symposium on Girls in Conflict with the Law that took place from October 2020 to March 2021, continued this campaign in an international context with input from the SPC.

However, many countries – including both the United States and China – continue to use policies that are inadequate to address the unique needs of girls in conflict with the law. Both the Law on Protection of Minors and the revised Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Law made significant strides in improving protections for minors, but the lack of gender-specific measures needs to be addressed in the future. The drop in convictions and the rise of diversionary measures reflect the great progress made in these protections, but it is important that girls are not left behind as China’s juvenile justice system continues to reform.