In May, American and Chinese officials met in Washington to convene the 15th session of the long-running human rights dialogue and then again, in Beijing, for a strategic and economic dialogue. Both dialogues covered many subjects but failed to yield much by way of results. The same week as the human rights dialogue, however, a spirit of cooperation was on display when a US delegation organized by Dui Hua took part in juvenile justice exchanges in Beijing and Qingdao, Shandong Province. Running from May 8 to 15, the program was initiated at the invitation of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) after Dui Hua hosted an SPC group of Chinese judges on a study tour of the American juvenile justice system in 2008 (see Dialogue 33). Chinese officials praised that first delegation as one of the most successful US-China exchanges in years, and the return trip this spring illustrates that juvenile justice will likely remain a fruitful area for further cooperation between the two countries.

Juvenile justice is a natural topic for dialogue with China, as the country’s legal experts and legislators are creating a national system of laws to govern the handling of crimes by young offenders. The country has seen an alarming increase in juvenile crime, a crisis brought on by social changes resulting from rapid economic growth. In 2009, Chinese courts heard nearly 78,000 cases of suspects younger than 18 years of age, the vast majority involving theft, robbery, and assault. Tackling the problem head-on, China now has about 7,000 adjudicators specifically assigned to juvenile cases in more than 2,200 juvenile courts.

Judge Lillian Sing of the San Francisco Superior Court led the US delegation, which included a strong San Francisco Bay Area contingent—Judge Julie Tang of the San Francisco Juvenile Court, Patricia Lee, managing attorney for the Juvenile Division of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, and Allen Nance, assistant chief probation officer of the City and County of San Francisco—as well as Laurie Garduque, program director for juvenile justice with the MacArthur Foundation, which helped fund the 2008 delegation. Joshua Rosenzweig, Dui Hua’s senior research manager, rounded out the group, and Executive Director John Kamm joined in activities in Beijing. Sonia Ng and Chi-ho Chan served as interpreters for the delegation. The head of the 2008 SPC study tour, Judge Hu Weixin, deputy director of the SPC’s Research Office, was the principal host in China for the US delegation, which was supported in part by the Hong Kong-based Fu Tak Iam Foundation.

Windows into Juvenile Courts

Highlights of the time in Beijing were a visit to the Beijing Juvenile Reform Center (see related article) and a tour of the Haidian District Court. Since 1992, the court has adjudicated around 6,000 cases of juvenile crime and hears 400 such cases a year. Approximately one-fourth of trials result in non-custodial sentences; juveniles were incarcerated in the other 75 percent, a rate comparable to the national average. During the visit, delegates posed questions about community corrections, pre-trial detention, factors mitigating punishment, and diversion (when juvenile cases are channeled outside the court system). They also asked about foreigners’ access to trials, and were told that two to three foreigners attend trials there each month.

An introduction to the court’s juvenile courtroom was provided by Judge Shang Xiuyun, known in China as “Mother Judge” for her faith in the power of rehabilitation for juvenile offenders. Judge Shang explained the important design of the courtroom: participants sit at the same level in a roundtable format, with the defendant facing the “embracing arms” of the prosecution, judges, and defense. Even the courtroom wall’s warm colors are meant to promote the comfort of a classroom.

At the China-US Juvenile Justice System Seminar in Qingdao, delegates learned that 13 juvenile courts in the city try more than 600 criminal cases a year, and around half result in non-custodial sentences. The Shinan District People’s Court operates a “Sunshine School” for judges to educate juvenile offenders on law as part of a diversion program. A local center runs corrections programs, including one that holds after-school homework sessions for offenders with non-custodial punishments.

In Qingdao, Chinese experts and US delegates gave presentations and engaged in wide-ranging discussion at the juvenile justice seminar.

Learning by Sharing

US delegates and Chinese experts at the seminar gave overviews of juvenile justice work in the two countries. The host side gave positive assessments of foreign practices, some of which are taking hold in China. President Zou Chuanning of the Qingdao Intermediate People’s Court (and a member of the 2008 delegation) spoke of a local pilot program to seal criminal records for minors, a practice that exists in several jurisdictions but often without solid legal basis. Some courts have instituted “postponed prosecution” for minors, similar to diversion in the United States. A Chinese presentation was devoted to psychological evaluations of juvenile offenders, suggesting the country’s legal community is interested in adolescent brain development—the theoretical foundation for US juvenile justice reform.

As in China’s adult criminal justice system, juvenile courts employ practical approaches for handling less serious crimes. Minor status offenses for youth in China do not require legal proceedings and are instead handled by community organizations, the family, or schools. Fines, reprimands, or warnings are often given for major offenses. Introduced by an official from the Jiangsu Higher People’s Court, a restorative justice project in Nanjing aims to resolve cases by mediating a dialogue in an effort to repair relationships damaged by a crime. Courts may consider a lighter sentence if a voluntary settlement is reached.

The US and Chinese sides each conducted a “mock trial” to demonstrate the adjudication of a juvenile case. The Chinese case involved a motorbike theft—a crime to which a youth confessed, allowing for simplification of proceedings and the likelihood of leniency. Despite the confession, detailed evidence was presented, along with a character and background profile of the juvenile, who was eventually ordered to receive rehabilitation and education.

With two judges presiding, the Americans presented a more complex adjudication for a girl accused of assaulting a schoolmate’s mother and threatening another girl not to discuss the incident. After hearings and a disposition—when sentencing is discussed—one judge initially ordered home custody and formal probation (with supervision by a probation officer). The second judge, however, then ordered the defendant to only informal probation, as requested by the public defender, so charges would be dismissed if the juvenile did not re-offend over a period of six months. This aspect of the adjudication showed the high degree of discretion that American judges have, an element that contrasts significantly with constraints faced by Chinese judges when deciding cases.

The presentations, with differing substances and styles, elicited robust discussion. The US side asked about the Chinese way of introducing the case facts and applicable laws in detail despite the defendant’s confession—also a common feature of the adult criminal justice system—and observed that the formality of the court proceedings contrasted with the personalized nature of the education phase. Chinese participants sought clarification about the role of a probation department, which does not exist in China, and complimented the US side’s decision to present the mock trial case using two judges.

Room for More Growth, Partnership

After over a century of formulating juvenile justice laws, the United States still struggles with how to best handle its youngest offenders, while China in a short time has developed practices worthy of consideration by Americans. The US Supreme Court ruled right after the delegation that sentences of life without parole for juveniles—except in cases of homicide—are unconstitutional. In March, a Pennsylvania judge ruled that a youth would be tried as an adult for a homicide committed when he was 11 years old. This situation cannot possibly occur in China, where an individual under 14 years of age is not considered criminally responsible for any offenses.

The merits of juvenile justice exchange do not obscure the fact that China and the United States disagree on many human rights matters. But the delegations show the two countries share much of value in pursuing common legal goals. An upcoming time to discuss points of law will be when China and the United States resume the legal experts’ dialogue, for which the juvenile justice exchanges might serve as a model of cooperation that can benefit both societies.

Related link: