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2018-12-18 07:07:36 Commentary

A series of high-profile murder cases involving minors has many Chinese wondering if the country needs to adopt a stricter stance toward its juvenile offenders.

On Dec. 2, a 12-year-old boy from a town in the central province of Hunan confessed to murdering his mother in retaliation for being beaten. However, because the boy was under 14 — the minimum age of criminal responsibility in China — prosecutors were unable to charge him with a crime, and he was released and sent back to school within days of the murder. The local educational bureau could only suggest that he transfer schools, while psychologists recommended he see a counselor.

In late November, six 14- to 17-year-old boys from a small city in the northwestern province of Shaanxi were arrested for forcing a 15-year-old acquaintance of theirs into prostitution and then beating her to death. Although they’re all eligible for prosecution, Chinese law calls for leniency for defendants between 14 and 17. Some worry that the boys will be given a relative slap on the wrist.

These were not isolated cases. In March, a 13-year-old boy in the central province of Hubei attacked a girl with scissors, robbed her, and forced her to strip. Despite scarring her both mentally and physically, prosecutors were unable to charge him with a crime, because he was not yet 14. In 2015, a group of students in the southwestern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region severely beat an 11-year-old girl; their only punishment was being made to apologize to the victim.

Such cases have become all too common in China. According to a white paper from the Beijing First Intermediate People’s Court, there was a notable increase between 2009 and 2017 in the severity of crimes attributed to minors, as well as signs that juveniles were committing them at increasingly young ages.

Reliable data on juvenile crime rates in China is not easy to come by. Part of the problem is that the data published by the Supreme People’s Court only covers court cases. Since those under 14 cannot be charged with a crime, and those between 14 and 16 can only be charged with crimes from a list of eight serious offenses — such as arson, rape, intentional assault causing severe injury or death, and murder — it’s difficult to get a comprehensive picture.

Still, the abovementioned white paper reveals that the three crimes 14- to 15-year-olds are most likely to be charged with are robbery, intentional assault, and rape. As for crimes committed by children under 14, no systematic research has been conducted into criminality or school-based violence in this age group, and there is no centralized system for collecting data on the subject.

Minors should be protected, but that doesn’t mean they should be given a Get Out of Jail Free card for criminal activity.

China’s Law on the Protection of Minors repeatedly calls on the country’s legal authorities to show lenience to juvenile defendants. Meanwhile, the rights of underage victims are mentioned only in passing, with just a single article noting that the names of underage sex-crime victims should be protected. In current legal practice, it seems as though there’s more emphasis on protecting the perpetrators of violence rather than the victims. This goes against the purpose of such laws. Minors should be protected, but that doesn’t mean they should be given a Get Out of Jail Free card for criminal activity.

There are growing signs that the public would support changing the law. Earlier this year, a local procuratorate in the central province of Henan came under fire for celebrating the successful mediation of a rape case involving two juveniles, as well as an earlier decision it made to give a three-year suspended sentence in a bullying-related death case. In these two instances, both the perpetrator and the victim were underage, leading some to wonder if the law was protecting young criminals at the expense of victims and the victims’ families.

Internationally, many developed countries have already lowered the age at which juveniles can be prosecuted. In 1998, England and Wales repealed protections for juveniles aged 10 to 14, making it easier for them to be charged with crimes. In 2007, Japan amended its laws to allow juveniles as young as 11 to be placed in juvenile training schools. In the United States, some states allow minors as young as 6 or 7 to be charged with crimes.

In short, it wouldn’t be unusual or unreasonable to adjust legal protections given to minors. Some Chinese legal experts have already suggested rethinking the way the country treats juvenile criminals. Li Chunsheng, a juvenile law expert, has recommended the minimum age of criminal responsibility be lowered to 12. Wang Jiajuan, a delegate to the National People’s Congress, has proposed a system in which repeat offenders between 12 and 14 could be subject to criminal prosecution.

Several legal experts have brought up the importance of protecting, educating, and reforming juvenile offenders. Still, it’s worth considering whether the current system is the best way to achieve these goals. Many of China’s juvenile offenders are dropouts, or come from broken homes, one-parent families, or have been left behind by parents who moved elsewhere in search of work. If we do decide it’s necessary to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility, we should also provide more assistance to such families to help prevent crime before it happens. In addition, the government should strengthen the education programs offered to juvenile offenders, helping them learn a trade and reintegrate into society. Perhaps this will be a more effective strategy than lenience alone.

This article has been adapted and abridged from a version first published by Guancha.cn and has been republished with permission. The original can be found here.

Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Kilian O'Donnell

(Header image: Chen Binrong/VCG)