— Douglas Evans, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
The juvenile justice system is a relatively recent innovation in China. China passed legislation to create a juvenile justice system a little more than two decades ago. The action was in response to a perceived increase in juvenile crime. In the 1980s, the rate of juvenile crime more than doubled across the country (Wong 2001).
China enacted the Law on Protection of Minors in 1991 to promote the development of youth morality, intellect, and physical well-being. The Law charged the government, society, schools and families with the responsibility to instill culture, patriotism, discipline, and collectivism in youth. Parents retain the duty to punish children who committed crimes before the age of 16, but crimes that are particularly heinous, the government may assume responsibility (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific 2011).
In 1994, China passed the Law on Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency, which established the nation’s goal of protecting juveniles in all facets of life. It called for citizens, organizations, government agencies, and families to create a positive social environment for youths. The law required all levels of government to contribute to plans for preventing juvenile delinquency (All-China Women’s Federation 2011).
The process of youth justice in China starts with law enforcement. If a police agency does not exercise its discretion to release an offender or refer the youth to his or her parents, the case progresses to a prosecutor. The prosecutor may either discharge the case or recommend administrative punishment, in which case the youth proceeds to court. In the Chinese court system, there are very few alternatives to imprisonment. The available sanctions consist of fines and imprisonment.
The stated purpose of sentencing according to Chinese law is to educate the offender. Punishment is officially secondary. If a juvenile has no prior offenses, the court is encouraged to dismiss the case or to require the juvenile to apologize or compensate his or her victim. Since the passage of the Protection and Prevention Laws, judges in Chinese courts are expected to use the lightest possible punishment for youth. Judges can suspend the sentences of juveniles sentenced to less than three years of imprisonment if they pose minimal risk and if the family environment is deemed to be suitable (Yue 2002).
Despite the nation’s official policies that favor rehabilitation, Chinese courts order incarceration for serious and violent offending youths. In 2003, there were 19,000 juveniles in education centers (the equivalent of youth prisons) in China (Mosher 2004). Researchers conducting a study on court dispositions in Shanghai found that judges ordered the maximum three-year prison sentence for 70 percent of all juveniles convicted of criminal acts (Yue 2002). The high rate of imprisonment is also due at least in part to the lack of available alternative sanctions. Judges have very limited sentencing options for youthful offenders. There are virtually no intermediary or community-based sanctions. Although the juvenile justice system is expected to use incarceration only as a last resort, when the choice is either confinement or minimal sanctions, it is common for judges to choose confinement.
All-China Women’s Federation (2011). Law of the People’s Republic of China on Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency. Beijing, CN: Author.
Mosher, Stacy (2004). Juvenile crime fact sheet. China Rights Forum, 4, 39.
Wong, Dennis W. (2001). Changes in juvenile justice in China. Youth & Society, 32(4), 492-509.
Yue, Liling (2002). Youth Justice in China. In Winterdyk, John A. (Ed.) Juvenile justice systems: International perspectives (pp. 103-126). Toronto, ON: Canadian Scholar’s Press.