China undertakes judicial reforms to ensure uniformity

Sunday, February 20, 2011

BEIJING - China is undertaking judicial reforms to ensure that uniform standards exist across the country for sentencing criminals. It intends to achieve this by enhancing supervision and person-centred care for both convicts and victims.

Wang Hongmei, vice president of a district court in east China’s Shandong Province, remembers an incident in which a defendant reacted to the verdict she meted out in his theft case.

“A fellow inmate stole the same amount of money as I did. He received a jail term of five years, but I got six and a half years. I’ll appeal this sentence,” the defendant said.

The incident struck the judge deeply and made her think of how courts throughout the country could obviate the influence of different localities and avoid giving varying punishments for the same crimes, Xinhua reported.

To address the phenomenon, which has already triggered a public outcry, and to promote standardised penalty measurement, Chinese courts have adopted a series of steps to ensure uniform standards for sentencing criminals.

Last year, on Oct 1, two documents instructing judges on uniform procedures for sentencing were put into place in all Chinese courts. It was a major reform in the country’s legal system.

According to the new procedures, public prosecutors, the parties involved, their defenders and legal representatives can state their views on the quantum of punishment to avoid arbitrary sentences.

The move has had a positive effect as the rate of appeals has dropped significantly, according to the Supreme People’s Court.

China had been trying to reform its judicial system by enhancing supervision of the judicial and law enforcement arms and adopting a more humane approach and person-centred care for both convicts and victims.

China’s police and judicial arms ordered an overhaul of prisons and detention centres in 2009 to put an end to the unnatural deaths of prisoners following a suspicious death of an inmate in the southwestern Yunnan Province.

Beatings and other irregularities in China’s detention facilities have come under close public scrutiny after a string of “unnatural” deaths occurred over the past two years.

China has moved to help ex-convicts get improved access to employment and social insurance. The country has also built an employment database which collects employment information about ex-convicts.

Adhering to the principle of combining leniency with severity, a draft amendment to China’s Criminal Law (which was submitted to the country’s top legislature for review), proposes making 13 crimes exempt from capital punishment.

The current law allows the death penalty for 68 crimes. The amendment, if passed, will reduce the number to 55.

Moreover, the death penalty will not be permitted for people aged 75 years or more at the time of trial, except if they used exceptional cruelty when committing murders, according to the draft amendment.

Gang leaders, however, will face longer jail terms of up to 15 years under the proposed changes.

The central and local governments also stepped up support for legal aid in poverty-stricken areas last year.

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