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The China Law Center Co-Organizes Discussion on Criminal Sentencing Guidelines at the Supreme People’s Court

On July 27, the China Law Center was pleased to have the opportunity to organize a presentation and discussion on criminal sentencing guidelines by Dr. Kim Hunt, Executive Director of the Washington, D.C. Sentencing Commission, at the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) in Beijing.  Prior to joining the DC Sentencing Commission, Mr. Hunt directed research for the Maryland and Virginia Sentencing Commissions and served as director of the U.S. National Association of Sentencing Commissions.  Justice Dai Changlin, deputy chief of the SPC’s No. 3 Criminal Tribunal and head the SPC sentencing reform effort, hosted the meeting.  Approximately twelve SPC judges working on the issue of sentencing reform also attended.    

Although current SPC directives provide lower courts with some guidance for applying the extraordinarily broad sentencing ranges in China’s Criminal Law, SPC officials and Chinese legal scholars note that large disparities exist in sentencing for similar crimes, both within individual courts and across regions.  In an effort to address this disparity and build a more just sentencing system, the SPC is examining the feasibility of promulgating national sentencing guidelines and establishing a national sentencing commission.  In 2005, the SPC invited the China Law Center to assist it with this effort.  The discussion in Beijing was the latest in a series of Center-sponsored exchanges and visits on the sentencing issue.

  SPC Justice Dai Changlin and Washington, D.C. Sentencing Commission
   Executive Director Kim Hunt exchange views on sentencing guidelines. 

At the meeting, Dr. Hunt gave a detailed introduction to the DC Sentencing Guidelines, discussed different sentencing models in effect in other U.S. states, and highlighted the relative advantages and disadvantages of voluntary versus mandatory sentencing systems and mathematical sentencing grids versus guiding principles.  During an active question and answer session with the SPC judges, he noted that every system must strike a balance between maintaining uniformity and giving judges the discretion to take account of individual circumstances.  He stressed that sentencing guidelines must be based on actual sentencing practices, and encouraged the court to avoid instituting an overly complex sentencing system that ordinary judges would be unwilling, or unable, to apply in practice.

China is focusing on two possible sentencing models: a mathematical system for calculating sentences similar to an experimental model that has been applied in Zibo, Shandong Province and a set of broader, guiding principles on sentencing such as those being utilized on a trial basis in Jiangsu Province.  SPC representatives noted the disparities in income and local conditions across China and stressed that any national system is likely to leave the provinces with significant discretion to take account of such local conditions.