China's amended criminal law leaves young offenders with nowhere to hide

Offenders as young as 12 will not be able to rely on their tender years to escape criminal punishment.
Offenders as young as 12 will not be able to rely on their tender years to escape criminal punishment.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Offenders as young as 12 will not be able to rely on their tender years to escape criminal punishment, as China amends its criminal law such that the minimum age of criminal responsibility can be lowered in special circumstances.

The change will take effect on March 1. It comes in response to a number of extreme cases, including intentional killing and intentional injury, committed by minors aged 14 and below that shocked the nation and triggered widespread concern.

Under the amendment, the age of criminal responsibility will remain unchanged at 16. However, juveniles aged 14 to 16 will also face criminal punishment if they commit crimes such as intentional homicide, intentional injury, rape or aggravated robbery.

The amended law stipulates that children aged 12 to 14 will now be held criminally liable for intentional homicide or intentional injury that leads to death or severe disability through "extremely cruel means".

Those means have not been specified. Instead, they will be reviewed by the Supreme People's Court on a case-by-case basis and such prosecutions will have to be approved by the Supreme People's Procuratorate.

The amendment was approved by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, the country's top legislative body, in December.

Mature earlier

Mr Xu Hao, a lawyer with the Jingsh Law Firm in Beijing, welcomed the revision. He cited a Chinese Medical Association survey that suggests that people aged 18 and younger now reach maturity two or three years earlier than previous generations.

"That means many children aged 12 to 14, such as those in the highest grade of primary or middle school, can distinguish between right and wrong," he said.

"Therefore, lowering the age of criminal responsibility meets the physical and mental development of most adolescents."

He added that improving the way the law deals with crimes committed by minors has long been an issue of almost universal concern because the country is home to more than 300 million people aged 18 and younger.

Professor of criminal law Ruan Chuansheng, from the Shanghai Administration Institute, sees the revision as a deterrent to juveniles who assume they will not be punished for bad behaviour. He added that the threat of prosecution may stop young criminals from aggravating minor offences.

The feelings of the victims must also be considered, he said, recalling an influential case in Dalian, Liaoning province, in 2019.

On Oct 20 of that year, a 10-year-old girl went missing. The next day, her body was found in woods near her community.

The killer, a 13-year-old schoolboy surnamed Cai, confessed after being detained by local police.

According to media reports, before he was apprehended, Cai boasted to classmates that he would not be put behind bars because he was only 13 and, therefore, exempted from criminal punishment. The reports also alleged that he had harassed other women and girls in the same community.

A court in Dalian ordered Cai's family to pay compensation of more than 1.28 million yuan (S$263,000) to the girl's parents. Though they accepted the money, the parents said they would have preferred to see Cai face criminal punishment.

As the offence occurred before the criminal law was amended, Cai's age meant that he was exempted from such punishment. Instead, he was sentenced to three years rehabilitation.

"I think that exempting such a boy, who knew that what he did was wrong, from criminal liability was too lenient and unfair to the girl's parents," Prof Ruan said.

"The civil payment couldn't even begin to alleviate their suffering."

Prudent use

Mr Guo Linmao, an official from the Legislative Affairs Commission of the NPC Standing Committee, however, said the practice of holding young offenders criminally liable should still be used prudently because criminal punishment has always been applied sparingly in such cases.

In Mr Guo's view, leaving young offenders behind bars without effective rehabilitation is not a sensible option.

Therefore, he was pleased last year when the top legislature also amended the law on the prevention of juvenile delinquency.

One result of the amendment was that it divided juvenile offenders into two categories and provided different corrective treatments for them.

The first category covers children who exhibit bad behaviour such as smoking, drinking alcohol or Internet addiction.

The second includes those who seriously disturb public order or commit crimes but are exempted from criminal punishment, with the only exceptions being minors who commit serious offences that have recently been added to the amended criminal law.

The police can send those in the second category to reform schools where they will receive corrective education, but only after the decision has been assessed and approved by a local special education committee.

"In simple terms, we decided to provide juveniles with correction in line with the gravity of their offences," Mr Guo said.

He added that targeted corrective education and the age revision will play bigger roles in dealing with juvenile crimes, especially those committed by offenders at the younger end of the age scale.

The principle of education coming first and punishment second must always be upheld when handling juvenile cases, he said, because getting young offenders back on the right track is the ultimate goal.