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August 18, 2009

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China focus: clearing the past to build a future for China's young convicts

MOST underage criminals, about one in 10 of all offenders, don't break the law again but their record can follow them for the rest of their days. Now, a new scheme is giving them a second chance at creating a normal, law-abiding life for themselves, Wu Chen and Zhao Renwei report.

The day Xiao Zhang skipped school to play with friends has haunted him for the past five years. He had been enrolled by the best junior middle school in the town, but this teenager from countryside soon lost himself in the dazzling township where he found many places to play.

That day, when he and some friends passed a residential building, they thought of "getting some money."

"I regretted it as soon as I was caught by the police," he says.

The break-in he was involved in sent him to jail for four years in 2004, but he was released after 33 months for good behavior.

He cut contact with former friends after serving the sentence and tried his best to find a job to support himself and the family, but the shame followed him like shadow.

"I can sense relatives and friends looking down on me. I feel isolated."

But now he's starting to plan his life again with a certificate telling him the criminal record has been cleared.

"I want to be a technician in a local factory. I can learn from the basic level and hope one day I'll be experienced," says the 21-year-old.

With no new offences for at least one year since the end of his sentence, he is exempt from the obligation of reporting his criminal record when applying for education or employment, as previously required by the country's Criminal Law.

The record will be confined to the local public security department's internal system and be used only if he commits another crime.

Otherwise it's confidential.

He has been doing interior decoration with a small private company for almost two years.

"I didn't dare to look for a job in big companies as they would check my documents. They wouldn't employ me if they knew my record," he says.

"It's difficult to live with, but now, I don't have to be worried anymore. I can do what I want."

In Laoling County, Zhang's hometown, in eastern China's Shandong Province, the local court worked with other departments to issue a regulation on conditionally clearing juvenile criminal records early this year.

It stipulates that the records of people under 18 who committed crimes and were sentenced to less than three years in jail or detention, will be automatically cleared when the term is up.

Those who are sentenced to three to five years will be cleared if they commit no new crimes for a year after serving their sentence; those sentenced to jail for five to 10 years will have the records cleared three years after the end of the term; and those sentenced to more than 10 years will have their records cleared after six years.

The regulation does not apply to people convicted of crimes involving national security, drugs, as well as severe violence and recidivists.

Jia Fengyong, presiding judge of Laoling juvenile court, says that among all juvenile convicts, 99 percent stay out of trouble once they've served their time.

"It's unfair to let them shoulder the burden for the rest of their lives," says Jia.

China arrested 92,574 underage criminals in 2006, a 33 percent rise from 2003. About one in 10 criminals detained and prosecuted in 2006 was underage, according to Supreme People's Procuratorate.

Yao Jianlong, associate professor at the East China University of Political Science and Law, says the road to reform for young offenders has been blocked, stirring resentment toward society.

"Many offenders can only find jobs and return to society through illegally concealing their criminal records, which will lead to severe social problems," he says.

It's especially unfair for minors, whose mistakes can be rectified when they are young, Yao says, adding that the Laoling practice will be a positive step in helping young offenders return to a normal life.

However, restrictions still remain. The regulation does not cover offenders applying for posts in which convicted offenders are banned under current laws.

Yao says China has 160 laws and regulations prohibiting offenders from certain jobs, such as civil servants, teachers and lawyers.

China's Criminal Law, which was first enacted in 1979, makes it compulsory for people to state their criminal records when enrolling in the armed forces or applying for jobs. This provision remains unchanged although the law has been amended several times since then.

However, the Law on Protection of Minors, which took effect in 1992, stipulates it is illegal to discriminate against convicted minors who were enrolling in education or training, or applying for jobs.

Jia says the Laoling regulation is in accordance with the provision. "Without really clearing their records, there is no effective way to ensure the underage delinquents are not discriminated against."

Pengzhou County in southwest Sichuan Province first piloted clearing juvenile records in 2007. Licang District, of Shandong Province's Qingdao City, and Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi Province, also followed this year.

In October 2006, the policy of "balancing severe punishment with leniency" was first recognized by China's central authorities as a means to help build a harmonious society.

In March, the Supreme People's Court said in its Outlines on the Third Five-Year (2009-2013) Reform that the court would work with other departments to give more details, such as the conditions and the procedures for clearing records of underage minors to help them return to society more easily by showing more leniency.

Fan Chongyi, professor with the China University of Political Science and Law, says the clearing of juveniles' records practised the policy of "balancing severe punishment with leniency," showing social responsibility for minors.

He says the obligation in the Criminal Law to report records should be amended, not only for minors, but also for adults.

Professor Yao says it is time to end public discrimination to improve the social environment. "People are used to thinking that living or working with people with criminal records may be a threat to their own safety."

Fan says it would also take time for law enforcement agencies to examine past files if the regulation is to be adopted nationwide.

"There is still a long way togo," he says.


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