Youth justice: piloting rights based approaches
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Growing up in urban China is not what it used to be. Today’s youngsters are experiencing new family structures, new social realities, new kinds of play and new temptations—and more of them are getting into trouble with the law. Nick Young reports here on a scheme to divert young people from jail and into community support. Based in Yunnan’s capital city, Kunming, the project has shown real potential to affect national policy and practice in a criminal justice system that itself has not yet come of age.
Detailed crime statistics are seldom published in China but it is generally agreed that juvenile crime is rising fast in cities as urban populations grow in size and social complexity.
Li Jianming (李建明), a policeman with 27 years experience on the beat in Kunming’s Panlong District (盘龙区), says that criminals are becoming “younger, more violent and more sophisticated.” Zhou Shulian (周树廉), recently retired after 13 years service as Chief Prosecutor for Panlong, agrees:
“The juvenile crime rate is rising not just in Panlong District but across the whole of Yunnan, the whole country. Another facet is that female crime is rising, and females are using male methods. We think of young men as doing robberies, but nowadays even girls do this. They also operate in groups. Adults are more likely to commit crimes by themselves, but young people do it together. They are getting younger too. The Criminal Code holds young people over 14 legally responsible for their actions, but nowadays minors are committing crimes at an earlier age, 12, 13, even serious crimes.”
‘Serious crimes’ here refers to those that involve substantial property or significant violence and that are dealt with by the People’s Courts. The police still have wide powers to deal ‘administratively’ with many offences—including illegal drug use, prostitution, vandalism and relatively petty property offences—and can also imprison offenders under the age of 14 without any court proceedings. Administrative penalties can range from cautions to detention for up to fifteen days or 1-3 years ‘re-education through labour’ (劳动教养).
Police officer Li attributes the rising wave of juvenile crime partly to the Internet. Kids, he says, “learn bad things” from the Net, skip school to play on-line in electronic gaming parlours, and may turn to crime to finance their habit. “Every [young offender’s] family reports this problem,” Li notes. But he also points to broader, social change. “Communities are becoming more complicated,” he says, such that “relationships between people have changed.” A retired policewoman colleague of his, Fu Wenyu (付文玉), concurs: “When most people lived in siheyuan [courtyards] everyone knew each other, but now society is more anonymous and less secure.”
New urban landscapes
Panlong District, stretching from Kunming’s downtown area to the city’s northern ring road, is a microcosm of the urban transformation taking place in China. Recent boundary changes to accommodate the city’s rapid growth have left the district with a population of around 700,000 people. Slightly more than half of them are permanent, Panlong residents; 160,000 are rural migrants registered with the authorities as temporary residents, and a further 160,000 or so are ‘floating’ migrants with no formal registration in the locality.
The migrants come not just from Yunnan’s rural areas, but from other provinces all over China: Sichuan, Jiangsu, Hebei, even distant Xinjiang and impoverished Guizhou.
Some rent down-at-heel apartments from state work units still awaiting redevelopment in the city’s restless, skyward growth. In these shabby neighbourhoods the migrants live alongside Kunming natives who lack the means to move into new developments downtown or in the suburbs. For, in this province of 44 million, retrenchment and closure of state owned enterprises have cost at least 630,000 jobs, and the private economy has not developed enough to plug the gap. In 2004, 658,491 permanent residents of Yunnan’s cities received state ‘minimum guaranteed income’ support (最低生活保障) to bring them up to the locally-determined, urban poverty line—currently set, in Kunming, at CNY 250 (USD 31) per person per month.
On the outskirts of the city, meanwhile, farmland has been turned over to create several residential ‘villages’ occupied entirely by rural migrant workers. The accommodation is well downmarket from the suburban schemes for more prosperous citizens with permanent urban registration, but these migrant villages are by no means shanty towns. Ranks of utilitarian, five- and seven-storey apartment blocks, served by bustling local shops, restaurants and street traders, give every sign of being permanent settlements.
Yet these migrant population centres still largely lack community facilities and services. Migrant parents have to work long hours to make a living, and older children are often left to their own devices during the daytime. Children and teenagers who are out of school, out of work and/or without parental oversight (失学，失业，失管) are at high risk of getting into the trouble with the police, says Fu Wenyu. But so too, she adds, are youngsters “from well-off homes where the kids are spoiled.”
Beyond striking hard
Former prosecutor Zhou recalls that, faced with rising crime rates, “At first we relied on cracking down and applied adult laws in dealing with young offenders. Although in principle we wanted to protect minors, we still focussed on cracking down. After I became involved in this project my understanding changed and I came to see that it is better to use non-custodial sentences.”
The project Zhou refers to is a collaborative effort between Save the Children UK, the Panlong Justice Department and other district government agencies. This began simply enough in 2001 with the international organisation contributing to ‘legal education’ (法制教育) in schools in the district. A 1999 Law on Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency required schools to incorporate legal education into the curriculum and to appoint a Vice Principal—usually, a police officer, prosecutor or judge—with responsibility for this. Reflecting the belief that computer games sap youngsters’ moral fibre, the law also banned internet bars from operating within the immediate environs of schools.
Save the Children’s involvement in delivering legal education ensured that this went further than dire warnings not to break the law. Teachers, students, parents and district officials were also introduced to child rights and ‘life skills’ training approaches that included elements such as managing personal relationships and communicating with peers and parents; and volunteers were brought into the programme as informal mentors for children at risk.
This early engagement strengthened the NGO’s relationships with local schools, police and Justice Department officials, some of whom joined a study tour to look at the juvenile justice system and crime prevention programmes in Australia.
Access to the schools also allowed Save the Children to learn more about young people’s attitudes and vulnerabilities, as well as their family situations. For example, a recent survey undertaken by the organisation showed that fully one third of students in vocational schools (职高) are living in non-conventional family settings: being raised by single parents, grandparents, or in families with a step-parent. Another survey, conducted for the project by student volunteers from the Yunnan University of Finance and Economics and Yunnan Agricultural University, explored teenagers’ leisure and spending habits, as well as their attitudes to family and peer-group conflict. Project partners and volunteers connected with the justice and prison system have also begun to conduct interviews and surveys in remand and detention centres where international organisations are not generally welcomed.
From its early stages the project paid particular attention to children and young people who had already been placed on probation (缓刑). Chinese courts do in theory have probation and ‘help-and-educate’ (帮教) sentencing options, but these have been under-used because they are not supported by any system for supervision and support in the community. The project began to fill this vacuum by working with families and teachers in the schools to improve guidance and support for young people who had already been in trouble with the police, or were considered at risk of offending. The longer term challenge was to develop and institutionalise systems of support and supervision in the community.
The project responded to this challenge by adapting and building on an ‘appropriate adult’ scheme introduced over the last decade in the UK.
In the UK, when the police interview juveniles (and adults with intellectual disabilities or mental health problems), whether as suspects, witnesses or victims of a crime, the interviewee must now be accompanied by an ‘appropriate adult,’ who may be a relative, a professional social worker or a volunteer. This person is not supposed to take sides or represent the interviewee, but simply to witness the process, make sure that the interviewee understands the questions and, by implication, deter any abusive interview techniques. The role is defined in British statutory schedules such as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act Codes of Practice (Revised 1995).
Starting in 2003, the Panlong youth justice project began to promote this practice in juvenile cases, but also to incorporate the roles of social investigator, mentor and supervisor into that of ‘appropriate adult’ (合适成年人). Panlong appropriate adults have four, distinct, roles: to witness police and prosecutor interviews during the course of a criminal investigation; to prepare social background reports on young defendants, for consideration by police and courts when they deliberate on sentencing; to provide supervision and support in the community to young probationers; and to link and mediate between youngsters and official agencies—for example, talking to the education authorities where a student has been expelled from school.
This combination of roles seeks to address the reality of a criminal justice system that is not yet integrated with professional social services, and to start filling some of the gaps. If the experiment flourishes and expands it will mirror the historical development in the UK of professional probation services that grew out of non-profit organisation court ‘missions’ at the end of the 19th century.
A first series of training sessions for Panlong appropriate adult candidates took place in 2003. Sixteen candidates, all of whom had some legal knowledge and/or experience of working with young people, participated in the training course but only eight were certified as graduates by an inter-departmental panel. These eight now form the core appropriate adult team, one assigned to each of Panlong’s sub-district street affairs offices (街道办事处, urban China’s lowest tier of government). The team has weekly review meetings to plan joint activities and discuss individual cases.
Their terms of reference are framed by published guidelines that were drafted by project partners in 2003-2004 and approved by an inter-departmental Project Leading Group. The guidelines comprise a four-page ‘Protocol for Diverting Children in Conflict with the Law’, an eight-page ‘Manual for the Appropriate Adult Scheme’ and a three-page set of ‘Public Security Bureau Procedures for Dealing with Cases of Juvenile Delinquency.’
In the five months from July to November 2005, Panlong’s eight appropriate adults were involved—as interview witnesses, or preparing background reports and/or supervising probationers—in 98 juvenile cases. Offences, ranging from theft to assault, criminal damage, robbery and kidnapping, were mainly committed by males (88) and divided quite evenly between three age ranges: 16-17, 14-15, and 13 or younger. A total of 31 cases involved permanent Kunming residents, 43 involved Yunnanese rural migrants and 24 involved migrants from other provinces.
Yang Jian (杨健) is one of the appropriate adults. A former security supervisor in a state owned enterprise, he then worked in the public order (综合治理) department of a Panlong street affairs office. Befriending youth, he says, is the most important task of the appropriate adult, adding that his experience of working with young clients has helped him to understand and relate better to his own teenage son.
But it is not all plain sailing. Retired policewoman Fu Wenyu, another of the appropriate adults, says that family problems very often lie at the heart of teenage delinquency, but it is hard to secure the confidence of some families, such as those where the parents use drugs. “We go to the families but they don’t like our involvement, and this is very depressing.” Asked if it is hard to gain the trust of the young clients, she says “Of course they often start off by lying to you . . . but we explain that we are there to support them and protect their rights and this helps.”
Youth activity centres
Also helpful in building trust is the modest, material support that the project is able to offer some clients. For example, says Fu, project volunteers collect donations of second-hand clothes from better-off families, and these are passed on to the most needy clients.
“Another barrier to communication is the need to improve our own knowledge,” says Fu, “Because kids often know things that we don’t.” The involvement of student volunteers closer to the age of the clients, she adds, can help to grow trust.
Li Xiaohua (李晓华), volunteer coordinator for the project, says that around 90 volunteers have been involved in some activities, with a core, active group of around 20. As well as students, volunteers include “journalists, doctors, teachers” and workers in the criminal justice system. The volunteers organise informal education and recreational activities that have included a summer camp and a study visit for youngsters—to a youth detention centre.
Since July 2005, the Donghua sub-district street affairs office (东华街道办事处) has provided space in its offices for a Youth Activity Centre that serves as a platform for prevention and education work with young people at risk. Activities, ranging from table tennis to lectures, are organised on Fridays and Saturdays in the Centre, which also includes a library, training space for vocational classes delivered by volunteers, and a store of donated, second hand clothes. (The clothes, says Fu Wenyu, are collected from well-off households by project volunteers and passed on quietly to needy youngsters without “the embarrassing fuss that often goes with ‘good works.’’’)
Other Panlong sub-districts are now developing their own Youth Centres. In the outlying, predominantly migrant ‘village’ of Yunshancun (云山村), a space has already been allocated within a recently completed, cavernous community centre. In another sub-district densely populated by migrants, Jinxing Lianshe (金星联社), a disused workshop has been converted into a community centre that will also provide a Youth Activities space.
For Save the Children it is a logical step to integrate youth justice programmes into district government systems that are already engaged in their own quest for ‘community construction’ (社区建设). In Anhui Province, as part of a ‘Child Welfare in Communities’ project, the organisation has also worked with street affairs offices to establish after-school clubs for children of migrant parents. Embedding programmes within government systems in this way is expected to enhance their reach, sustainability and replicability.
Scaling up and out
In the case of youth justice, this approach is beginning to pay dividends. In September 2005, Kunming’s Youth League pledged to allocate two Youth Workers to each of the Panlong sub-districts, to establish Youth Service Centres (青少年事务中心) in each district, and also to develop pilot Centres in one prefecture-level city and two county-level cities in the province. These Youth Workers and Centres will have a broad mandate, working with young adults as well as minors, and providing services such as careers and job-seeking advice. But, says Save the Children Youth Justice Programme Manager, Jiang Min (姜敏), the Youth League has already invited Save the Children to help train the Youth Workers and incorporate the experiences of the Panlong project in the new Centres.
Moreover, according to Jiang Min, the Rights Department of the National Youth League is planning to declare the Panlong project a ‘national pilot’ (全国试范点) for community based approaches to diversion from custody. The League has also agreed work with Save the Children on replication of the project in Anhui and in one district of Beijing.
In a separate development, the influential Politics and Law Commission (政法委员会) of the Yunnan Province Communist Party issued a ‘decision’ (决定) in October 2005, recognising the project’s “remarkable achievements in long-term diversion and community correction for young offenders” and commending the Panlong Public Security Bureau as an “advanced unit” (先进单位) in this field.
Kunming’s ‘Caring for the Next Generation Committee’ (关心下一代委员会, a parastatal agency mainly comprising retired cadres,) has also seen the Panlong project as a way of taking forward a nominal commitment to community correction that the Committee’s national leadership made in 2002. The Kunming branch recommended in November 2005 that its members disseminate the Panlong project experiences within four Kunming districts, in the nearby city of Anning (安宁市), and in eight outlying counties.
The project can thus claim considerable success in drawing together different official and semi-official agencies in broad recognition of the need for experiment and change.
But, points out Jiang Min, it remains important to attract the attention of senior policymakers, because “although we can do pilot things, we cannot achieve so much without legislation and without government support.” Pilots are all very well, she says, but “it is unfair for children to be treated in one way in one district, and differently next door.” This suggests the need both to stimulate national level programmes and also to feed into the development of China’s fledgling criminal justice system.
Former prosecutor Zhou, who has served as a consultant to the Panlong project, is confident that “This project can push forward legislation for youth justice in China. The greatest difficulty we have now is that the legal system is lagging behind society. Young people need a separate system of justice. We need to improve the legal framework for children.”
A chance to do so arose at the end of 2004, when the central government asked the Youth League to draft revisions to the 1991 Law on Protection of Minors, and the League in turn invited Save the Children to offer technical assistance. As well as sharing its experiences in Panlong, Save the Children responded by translating relevant laws from other countries and by convening, with the China University of Politics and Law, a seminar on legal issues child protection. The technical assistance continues.
In Save the Children’s view the current Law does not satisfactorily define the statutory roles of relevant agencies, leaving them as potential ‘advocates’ for children’s rights but without either the power or the duty to institutionalise adequate protections.
Changing that will be a momentous task and results are unlikely to prove rapid. But, in a field that is still regarded as ‘sensitive,’ the present conjuncture provides an extraordinary opportunity to connect the development of substantive and procedural law with practical experimentation in rights protection.
International aid agencies in China often dream of ‘demonstration projects’ that, with a few thousand dollars’ investment, might persuade government partners to adopt, scale up and institutionalise ‘model’ innovations. It rarely happens that easily; but so far in this case something appears to have gone right.
The work by Save the Children and local partners in Panlong District has received net funding of USD 510,000 from the Netherlands government. The Ford Foundation provided USD 6,800 for a children’s law forum in 2005, and recently agreed a USD 45,000 grant for replication of the Panlong project in Hefei (Anhui) and in one district of Beijing.