I had already begun working on a juvenile justice program in China when the Dui Hua board approved expanding the foundation’s mission to include at-risk detainees other than political prisoners (read “Li Yan Has Survived!” parts one and two to learn about Dui Hua’s expanded focus). Shortly after board approval, I set in motion a plan to bring a delegation from China’s Supreme People’s Court (SPC) to visit the United States to study its juvenile justice system. I had already raised this possibility with the Court’s Research Department and the Office of Juvenile Courts in 2007, and they were receptive. We agreed that the delegation would take place in the summer of 2008.
On May 12, 2008, a devasting earthquake, measuring 8.0 on the Richter Scale, took place in Sichuan Province. More than 69,000 people were killed, and all overseas trips by Chinese government officials were put on hold. The Chinese juvenile justice delegation was eventually rescheduled, and it took place in October 2008.
The visit included meetings, presentations, and tours of courts and detention facilities in Chicago, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. A highlight of the two-week trip was a meeting with Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, well known to Chinese legal circles as the justice who wrote the 2005 Roper vs. Simmons decision which declared that executing juveniles (individuals under the age of 18) was unconstitutional. Kennedy referenced China’s own abolition of capital punishment for juveniles in 1997 in his majority opinion.
Upon the delegation’s return to China, Senior Judge Hu Weixin, who led the delegation, wrote a report on the visit. The report was widely circulated within the government and court system. On my visit to Beijing in July 2009, I was told by Chinese officials at the SPC and Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the report had been read by Premier Wen Jiabao. The Chinese juvenile justice delegation to the United States was considered one of the most successful programs in the field of legal exchange between the United States and China. It provided impetus for the reform of China’s juvenile justice system.
During the July visit I was invited to organize a return delegation of American juvenile justice practitioners to China. I followed up this visit by traveling to China twice during the first few months of 2010 to prepare. We agreed that the delegation would visit Beijing and Qingdao in May 2010 to make presentations, hold a mock trial, and visit juvenile detention facilities.
Tour of the Beijing Juvenile Reform Center
On May 10 we set out for rural Daxing County on the outskirts of Beijing. There, surrounded by acres of agricultural land and several other correctional facilities, was the Beijing Juvenile Reform Center. Founded in 1955, the center is the only juvenile prison in Beijing. It is managed by the Beijing Bureau of Prison Administration under the Ministry of Justice. At the time of our visit, it held 470 juveniles (in China, juveniles are 14-18 years old), 60 percent of whom had been sentenced to prison for violent offenses. There are also “work study schools” – now known as “specialized schools” – in Beijing. They are managed by the Public Security Bureau and hold juveniles who have committed less serious offenses but who are not tried by courts. Although 95 percent of those held in the center were males, there were 12 females. They were housed in a cell block separate from the boys.
It took more than an hour to reach the center from our hotel. Our cars encountered a massive traffic jam which necessitated our taking a back road. A colleague quipped, “They must have known you were coming.”
Upon arrival our delegation was met by Madame Sun, a formidable lady who was a senior cadre in the Beijing Prison Bureau, and by the warden and deputy warden of the Beijing Juvenile Reform Center. I had met Madame Sun once before, when I visited Beijing Number Two Prison in 2001.
We were treated to a performance of traditional Chinese drumming by around 100 boys, decked out in colorful peasant garb. The sound was deafening, and it seemed to go on for an eternity. The noise made it impossible to carry on a conversation with the wardens. Finally, SPC Judge Hu, who had accompanied us, stepped in and asked for the performance to end. At this point we were told that the boys were the only inmates that we would see on the visit. Everyone else was required to participate in the center’s annual sports day. It was odd that our visit was scheduled on one of the only days of the year when we could not see, much less interact with, incarcerated young people, something we had arranged for the Chinese delegation when they visited the United States. Sessions between young detainees and the Chinese visitors were among the most valuable experiences of the 2008 delegation’s visit to the United States.
Our group proceeded to visit the empty male and female cell blocks, classrooms and other activity rooms. We were told that the average inmate age was 17 and a half years old. Inmates who turn 18 but who have two years left on their sentences are typically not transferred to adult prisons and instead serve the remainder of their sentences in the juvenile reform center. Two juveniles were serving life sentences at the time of our visit.
The wardens explained the system of awarding points for good behavior. Each month, inmates can earn a maximum of 10 points: one for “showing remorse,” one for performing well in “thought reform,” and eight for general behavior such as observing discipline, classroom performance, good hygiene and so forth. Violations result in the deduction of points. Accumulation of points leads to citations which in turn form the basis of applications for sentence reductions. Every year 20 percent of juveniles in the center are granted parole, a rate much higher than the rate in adult prisons.
Teens incarcerated in the center are entitled to one family visit a month, and unlike inmates in adult prisons, this privilege is not restricted as a form of punishment. Inmates can also make phone calls and send letters to family members. Unlike in the United States, there are no gangs in juvenile prisons in China, and fights are uncommon due to intense monitoring by staff. Although there is a protocol for solitary confinement, it is rarely employed. The biggest problem is that it is difficult to deliver vocational training given the varying ages and sentences of the young people in the center.
After we left the cell block, I tried to find out if any inmates were serving sentences for endangering state security. Madame Sun jumped in before the wardens could answer my question. “You’re always asking about such people,” she exclaimed. I failed to get an answer.
After our second juvenile justice delegation concluded, Dui Hua organized three more delegations, two to China and one to the United States. American experts introduced such practices as “diversion,” the sealing of juvenile records, gender-specific measures, and psychological and behavioral assessments at every stage of adjudication and incarceration. Several of these practices were enshrined in the amended Criminal Procedure Law promulgated in 2012.
In 2010, when I visited the Beijing center with our delegation, 80,000 juveniles were arrested in China. More than 68,000 were given custodial sentences. In 2017, the year our last exchange with the SPC took place, fewer than 33,000 juveniles were given custodial sentences by Chinese courts, a drop of more than 50 percent.