Although the United States and China have very different criminal justice and penal systems, they both face the problem of overcrowded prisons. The two countries have the largest prison populations in the world, and they have enacted strict crime laws to incarcerate criminals more readily and for longer periods (e.g., “three strikes” in the United States and “strike hard” in China). Prison overcrowding is such a shared predicament that each country, whether through media articles or more official pronouncements, has criticized the other for the state of its overstuffed prisons.

In China, the Prison Law (监狱法) provides for general protections for prisoners, and Chinese law addresses the issue of crowding. The Criminal Life Sanitation Management Measure (犯人生活卫生管理办法) stipulates that, in order to maintain safety and airflow and avoid crowding, each inmate should be guaranteed five square meters of personal space. According to a study of 24 prisons in six Chinese provinces published in 1998, however, 42.2 percent of prisoners had less than three square meters and only 13.1 percent had more than five square meters. Another study released around the same time showed Chinese prisons nationally were 30 percent over capacity and 100 percent over capacity in Guangdong Province, where more than two dozen prisons are slated for construction by 2010, according to an article published recently in the Yangcheng Evening News.

Legal channels to combat overcrowding in China are also limited compared to the United States, where a federal ruling by a court in California came about through concerted action by a few human rights advocates (see Prison Overcrowding Costly to California, Other States). It is hard to imagine a similar case being adjudicated under China’s current legal and judicial structures.

With the global economic downturn, China will have to make tough financial decisions, and cutting costs in its prison system can benefit the entire country. China has over two million prisoners if administrative detainees are included, and in 1999, each prisoner cost the state about 10,000 RMB a year, almost twice as much as the average annual income for a Chinese worker at that time. And the average cost of incarcerating a prisoner in an urban area such as Shanghai can be three times that much.

China has many cost-effective and humanitarian options for relieving its overcrowded prisons. One way is to expand the use of parole, sentence reduction, and other forms of early release. China also can issue more administrative, non-custodial punishments, such as granting suspended sentences or imposing fines. Discussions in China about issuing a “60th anniversary special pardon” (see the lead story in Dialogue 34) have brought out other ideas from legal experts, such as allowing early release for criminals serving light sentences and those with less than three years to serve. If a special pardon were scaled to the pardon issued on the country’s 10th anniversary, as many as 100,000 people could be released from prison, significantly easing overcrowding.

China may well be moving in practical directions that can help relieve prison overcrowding. Since last year, large-scale paroles have been reported for groups of prisoners who pose no threats to society, including the elderly and the infirm, who excessively burden prisons responsible for incarcerating and caring for them. (In its online Human Rights Journal, Dui Hua reported on paroles that occurred in Sichuan Province in 2008 and in Beijing around the Spring Festival holiday in January.)

In considering reductions to its prison population, Chinese leaders in fact have an advantage and a good degree of flexibility compared to US officials, who often maintain “tough-on-crime” stances to win over a voting public. While US citizens often see prisoner releases as a sign of weakness, greater use of parole and sentence reductions in China might actually yield political capital for a leadership committed to building a harmonious society.

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