By Judge Julie Tang

Tang (front row, fourth from right) with Chinese delegates and staff of the San Francisco Boys & Girls Home at the group home.

I have been fortunate to be a part of the juvenile justice exchange programs sponsored by Dui Hua since 2008. From these exchanges, I had the opportunity to learn about one of the most serious problems facing China’s criminal justice system: the migrant youth-offender.

Dui Hua has published many articles since 2008 about the problem of juvenile offenders in China. Official data suggests that more than 60 percent of juveniles convicted in China are incarcerated. Many of them are children of migrant workers who do not have the time or resources to properly supervise their children. To compound the problem, many of these youth do not have access to schools because of the policy of hukou (or house registration)—a national policy that a youth must have a registered residence in the city in order to be qualified to go to a public school in that city. Many of these young people have no jobs, schools, or any structured activities and commit crimes to make ends meet. The migrant youth-offender problem has become so serious that China’s Supreme People’s Court has made juvenile justice reform one of the nation’s priorities.

Tang (right) meets with Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court judges in November 2011

When I visited the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court in November 2011, I observed the trial of a migrant youth who was accused of snatching a necklace from a victim. He was arrested almost instantaneously. The necklace was returned and the victim was unharmed. At the time of the trial, the minor had been detained for more than six months. The judges who tried the case shared with me the reason for the long detention—and their dilemma: The young man’s parents were migrant workers and not locatable, and there were no living relatives identified. Under Chinese law, a minor cannot be released from detention unless a parent, or a suitable relative, steps up to accept the minor into his/her home.

In the US, we face these problems on a daily basis. But thanks to many years of evolving juvenile law, and progressive federal and state legislative actions, we have Title IV federal funding and some local funds to provide shelters in the form of group homes, which house minors temporarily while their cases are pending—or for long-term placement during rehabilitation.

As judges, we are required by law to place a minor in the least restrictive placement—after considering community safety—while the minor is awaiting trial, or after conviction. At present, out of a caseload of approximately 650 minors in our San Francisco juvenile courts, about 65 minors are detained in the temporary, locked-detention facility while awaiting trial. After conviction, we send, yearly, on average, 5 youth, the most serious and violent offenders as defined by the statue, to a highly secured and locked facility called the Department of Juvenile Justice, with potential confinement until they turn 23 years of age. For the majority of the minors who are repeat or even serious offenders, we rely on group homes for involuntary out-of-home placement. Currently, we have approximately 160 minors assigned to out-of-home placements in group homes. The rest are allowed to reside in the home of their parents or guardians with specific probation conditions such as school, curfew, no drugs or weapons, drug or anger management programs, etc.

The group homes allow for rehabilitation, rather than punishment; this is an established judicial philosophy and statutory mandate for the treatment of juvenile offenders. This alternative provides a safe, highly structured and disciplined environment where the minor is required to go to school and participate in a program to rehabilitate him/her from crimes and drugs. Many group homes specialize in substance abuse and mental health treatment. Other group homes focus on vocational and educational programs or gang abatement. We try to place a minor in a program that meets his/her specific needs. Group homes are not locked facilities, but they are supervised and managed by professionals licensed to run the homes for young offenders. These group homes serve a vital function in housing minors who may not have a home to return to. Others are placed in group homes upon a determination by the court that there is substantial risk of harm to the minor or the community if he/she were to be returned to the parents, and that out of home placement is necessary to rehabilitate the minor and keep the community safe.

In the September 2012 exchange with China’s Supreme People’s Court, we had the opportunity to show the Chinese delegation an example of a group home: the San Francisco Boys & Girls Home. The Chinese delegates were extremely interested and asked many questions such as the monthly cost for housing a group-home resident. I mentioned the example of a 15-year-old young man, a recent immigrant from China who was temporarily sheltered in the group home while awaiting trial.

At the group home, he had his own room and was driven to and from school every day. He participated in communal cooking and cleaning at the home and received on-site therapy for anger management and other cultural sensitivity training. He even had a temporary job while living at the group home. After 90 days, it was determined that it was safe for him and the community to release him back to his parents. His case was later settled for probation.

It is my and Dui Hua’s sincere hope that through the exchanges with China’s Supreme People’s Court, both China and the US will continue to adopt the reforms that promote rehabilitation of one of the most important and vulnerable parts of our community—the youthful offender—and provide them the protection, compassion, and support they need to safely rehabilitate to become a useful member of society. ■

Judge Julie Tang has served as judge of the San Francisco Trial Court since 1991, first as Municipal Court judge and elevated to the Superior Court in 1998. She is a former assistant district attorney for the City and County of San Francisco. Judge Tang is deeply involved in organizations addressing issues of concern to Chinese communities.

RelatedUS Participant Perspectives on the 2012 Exchange