Before Chinese new year, the Supreme People’s Court held a news conference to highlight its accomplishments in reforming parole procedures. The previous procedures (or lack of them) (as described below) appeared to have been a money-spinner for prison officials. The reform in parole procedures highlights the value that current Chinese legal policy places on Justice Louis D. Brandeis’s wisdom (without citing him):
“Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants…”
The change in parole procedures also are a good example of how results of investigations by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) and Central Political and Legal Committee policy documents are eventually are translated into improvements in legal procedures.
The reforms to parole procedures include:
- The Court’s August, 2014, Provisions On Commutations And Parole(最高人民法院关于减刑、假释案件审理程序的规定) (translation can be found here), requiring much more transparency;
- November, 2014 procedures issued by the Court along with the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Public Security, Supreme People’s Procuratorate, and National Health and Family Planning Commission on medical parole and related issues (暂予监外执行规定), establishing stricter guidelines.
- Establishing an internet platform on the Court website to make public (provide sunlight) parole/commutation matters: acceptance of applications, notice of court hearings,and court rulings;
- Establishing a filing system under which decisions relating to officials of county level (or section (处) need to filed with provincial high courts and provincial department (bureau level（局)) need to be filed with the Court;
- Model cases on parole and commutation, to guide lower court judges in their work, and inform the public on these reforms.
With flexible provisions and limited transparency on medical parole, commuting sentences, and parole procedures, in recent years apparently underpaid Chinese prison officials caught the entrepreneurial spirit and (like the Monopoly game that many of us grew up playing), sold “get out of jail cards” to those who could afford to pay. Those were generally made up the wealthy and (formerly) powerful, particularly those who had committed the following crimes:
- duty crimes (including taking bribes and abusing authority);
- organized crimes;
- financial crimes.
An August, 2014 press report mentioned that over 700 prisoners nationwide had improperly secured early release. Other reports cited that prison officials in Guangdong were particularly entrepreneurial, arranging for the improper release of approximately 140 in Guangdong, primarily former officials, including:
- Wang Ju, former vice mayor of Shenzhen;
- Zhao Yuchun, former head of Shenzhen customs;
- Huang Shaoxiong, former deputy head of the Guangdong United Front Work Department; and
- Lin Chongzhong, former deputy mayor of Jiangmen.
CCDI investigations and Central Political Legal Committee policy document
It appears that these reforms can be traced back to CCDI investigations in 2013 (and possibly earlier), because in August, 2013, the CCDI website carried a summary of a speech by Xi Jinping at a CCDI conference in which he calls for reforms to parole procedures. At about the same time reports of investigations into prison officials were released by CCDI, such as one of a Hunan Province Justice Department (the Justice departments run the prison) official who was found to have almost USD 2 million (12 million RMB) in assets disproportional to his income. Many other prison officials in other provinces have also been investigated.
In January, 2014, the Central Political Legal Committee issued a policy document outlining the policy framework for the reforms, which began with the frank admission that society was incensed by the rich and powerful who had been sentenced to prison who often served relatively short sentences because they had their sentences commuted or were given parole, directing special restrictions prisoners convicted of the above three types of crimes. (The Supreme People’s Procuratorate has issued its own regulations to implement the policy document.)
Reducing corruption in the justice system and giving Chinese people more confidence in it is a multi-faceted process, with greater transparency needed across many areas. These reforms to parole and commutation procedures are likely to be one of the accomplishments that President Zhou Qiang will be able to point to when he gives his report to the National People’s Congress next month, particularly as the August, 2014 regulations are listed as one of one of the Court’s 10 major policy accomplishments of 2014.
Additionally, the internet platform also serves as a window into criminal activity in China, such as the recent application by a Han native of Xinjiang, convicted in Beijing of dealing in drugs, but who was permitted by the Chaoyang District Court to serve his sentence outside of jail for the next six months, because he has AIDs.