Gao Guangshi, a judge at Shizhong district court, Zaozhuang city, Shandong province, shows primary school students how he uses his gavel. Students are regularly invited to visit the court to learn about proceedings and take part in mock trials. [Photo by JI ZHE/FOR CHINA DAILY]
When police in Hubei province received reports earlier this year that a 13-year-old girl had been abducted, robbed and sexually assaulted, the prime suspect－who was known to the victim－was quickly apprehended.
However, instead of leading to a full investigation and possible prosecution, the case was dropped almost immediately because the alleged attacker was age 13, below the age of criminal responsibility, meaning the police were powerless to act.
The case, which occurred in March but recently received widespread attention after the girl's mother posted details of the alleged attack on Sina Weibo, has sparked debate about how authorities should deal with young people accused of criminal acts, especially violent crime.
In a statement on June 27, police in Xiaogan, a city in Hubei, said officers were called to a suburban community at around 8 pm on March 20 after reports that a girl had been abducted by a teenager as she waited for the elevator in her residential building.
When the officers arrived, they discovered the girl on a third-floor balcony. She was rescued and taken to the hospital for treatment.
When questioned, the boy admitted threatening the girl with a pair of sharp scissors, before taking her to an unoccupied apartment on the fourth floor where he robbed her and slashed her with the scissors.
However, in a Weibo post on June 28, the girl's mother said her daughter had claimed that in addition to the scissors, the boy had two knives and a razor blade.
The girl also alleged that he had threatened her by pointing to her neck and saying, "That is the artery－if I cut it, you will die."
Police later confirmed that a pair of scissors and a razor blade had been found at the scene of the alleged crime.
People enter a rehabilitation center established by a court and businesses in Xuzhou, Jiangsu province. [Photo by YONG JUN/XINHUA]
Evidence, but no charges
The suspect, who lives in the same community and was a classmate of the victim, was detained on the night of the alleged attack.
However, despite strong evidence, he was quickly released into the care of his family without charge because the Criminal Procedure Law states that only people age 14 and older can be held criminally responsible.
In her post on Weibo, the alleged victim's mother described the incident in detail and expressed frustration at the lack of a full investigation.
She posted pictures of cuts on her daughter's neck, chest and legs, and alleged the boy had stripped the girl naked and attempted to rape her.
She said her daughter had escaped her ordeal after two hours by jumping through a window onto the balcony while her attacker was distracted.
"The law protects underage offenders, but who will protect my daughter?" the mother wrote on Sina Weibo, adding that while her daughter's physical wounds have healed, she is still struggling with mental trauma.
Efforts to mediate between the families of the alleged victim and the suspect to arrange a financial settlement have failed, the police said later.
When contacted by China Daily, a police officer in Xiaogan who declined to be identified said the force is helping the girl to contact the local educational authority so she can transfer to a different school.
In recent years, police have noticed a growing trend of juveniles committing crimes－many of them violent－at increasingly young ages, the officer said, adding that many of those detained and later released went on to reoffend.
"Last year, only two children were sent to reform school in Hubei. Most of the time, they just go home with their parents. Many become repeat offenders. All we can do is increase the number of visits we pay to their homes," the officer said.
In China, people are tried as adults from age 17, while children ages 14 to 16 can be prosecuted for eight specific crimes, including homicide, rape and robbery.
However, legal experts say the guidance available to public security authorities on dealing with underage offenders is vague.
No official figures are available about the number of crimes committed by people below the age of criminal responsibility every year.
Those younger than 14 can be sent to reform schools, institutions usually located in juvenile detention facilities but separated from units housing older offenders.
Hubei has several such schools, but authorities must seek permission from the parents or guardians before a child can be placed in such a facility, and most refuse, said Li Chunsheng, director of juvenile protection for the Hubei Lawyers Association.
"The vast majority of parents just want their kids back home with them," he said. "It's bad for the children, especially those whose parents have little or no education. Many will drop out of school, which could lead them further into crime."
Xiaogan police confirmed that the boy's parents had refused a request to send him to a reform school.
Some young people's violent tendencies could go entirely unchecked if their parents won't discipline them and the authorities are not allowed to, and that could lead to serious issues in later life, according to Ma Ai, a professor of criminal psychology at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing.
"If a violent child doesn't receive intervention and psychological support early enough, they're more likely to commit crimes again," he said.
Lu Hongwang, who has been a police officer in Jinan, Shandong province, for 20 years, has noticed a rise in the number of crimes committed by children younger than 14.
But even if young offenders are caught red-handed, officers have no option but to take them home and ask their parents or guardians to punish or educate them, he said.
He recalled the case of a boy who stoned someone to death in 2008 but couldn't be prosecuted because he was underage. However, in 2012, when the boy was 14, he committed another homicide and was detained and prosecuted.
The current situation is frustrating, but most police officers have heavy workloads and do not have time to investigate or analyze cases involving underage offenders, according to Lu.
Some legal experts have called for more-detailed regulations to be drafted to deal with young offenders, and some want the age of criminal responsibility lowered to 12.
To bolster their case, they cited the fact that lawmakers last year reduced the age at which a child can be held liable in a civil law lawsuit from 10 to 8.
Li, from the Hubei Lawyers Association, said the change recognized that children are maturing faster than ever before, both physically and mentally. That means they are capable of distinguishing right from wrong at an earlier age.
Authorities should be able to prosecute children as young as 12, making them eligible for juvenile detention and community rehabilitation programs, he said.
However, Ye Huijuan, an associate professor of penology at East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, said the ages of civil and criminal responsibility are not comparable.
China's Civil Law regulates between equal individuals, and the recent reduction of the age of responsibility in civil cases was aimed at protecting young people and encouraging appropriate behavior, she said.
By contrast, criminal law involves disagreements between the State and an individual, and it determines "at what age a person can be deprived of their freedom or even their life".
Harsh punishments are not the answer to juvenile crime, according to Ye.
"China sees education as the main method of treating juvenile offenders. Having a criminal record can affect someone's study and career prospects, so young ex-convicts often live worse lives than other people," she said.
In 2014, while working for the prosecuting authority in Shanghai's Jiading district, Ye helped found a rehabilitation center for migrant workers' children who offend.
The facility houses juveniles age 14 and older who have been ordered into re-education programs rather than prosecuted.
"Many of the volunteers at the center are migrant workers who can better communicate with these kids," she said.
"Such centers are a good way of helping kids instead of locking them up behind bars. The system could be extended to those below the age of criminal responsibility."
Aid for victims
While experts dispute the best way to deal with young offenders, most agree that more should be done to help minors affected by criminal activity.
The Law on the Protection of Minors focuses on juvenile delinquents, but the country has no laws or regulations related to child victims, meaning they are often overlooked by the government and social organizations, according to Li.
He said authorities should offer better psychological counseling and legal aid to such victims. "If the perpetrators stay free, these children will live in fear," he said.