HONG KONG » The Chinese Communist Party has demanded an end to arrest and conviction goals for the police, prosecutors and courts, the state-run news agency said Wednesday.
The order to end secretive performance standards was part of the government’s efforts to reduce the pressure for guilty verdicts. The pressure has led to a nearly 100 percent rate of convictions in criminal trials — and with that miscarriages of justice that have been exposed by a string of overturned convictions, including one in which the defendant was executed for murder."
These cases include some that were shaped by a presumption of guilt," said a report from Xinhua, the main state-run news agency, which announced the changes. "There has been a stress on confessions, giving less weight to evidence, and even the use of torture to secure confessions."
At a meeting Tuesday, the Political and Legal Affairs Committee of the Communist Party, which oversees the police, prosecutors and judges, demanded that officials "firmly abolish unreasonable assessment goals for numbers of criminal detentions, arrest rates, indictment rates, and rates of guilty verdicts and case conclusions," Xinhua reported.
The committee also proposed other changes to the criminal legal system, including offering more lenient punishment for defendants who admit guilt, the news agency reported.
Chinese officials have long operated under a system of economic, social and political performance goals that weigh heavily on their chances for promotion or demotion. Beginning in the 1990s, as the Communist Party put growing emphasis on domestic order and security, the targets for what the party calls "stability maintenance" assumed more importance.
"Usually, certain targets or certain instructions are issued at the top level," Joshua Rosenzweig, a researcher in Hong Kong who studies China’s criminal legal system, said by telephone. "And as they work their way down the hierarchy, they sometimes get more and more concrete, because everyone is expected to satisfy the desires of their superiors."
According to the Supreme People’s Court in China, the country’s judiciary concluded criminal trials of 1.16 million defendants in 2013 and found 825 people not guilty. That indicated that 99.9 percent were found guilty, a rate higher than in countries where prosecutors and judges have more leeway in deciding how to handle cases, despite pressure from politicians and the public.
The targets were just part of pressures on the Chinese legal system to ensure that official statistics show a nearly unblemished record, Shang Baojun, a criminal lawyer in Beijing, said by telephone. One consequence is that the police are often reluctant to record less serious crimes unless they are sure of arresting someone, said Shang, who welcomed the proposed changes.
"The very existence of these targets is irrational," he said. "If there’s a murder, and if you absolutely have to solve the case or the public security bureau chief or detective will lose his post or be demoted, then actually that’s the root of many cases of confession under torture that have emerged."
Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has acknowledged widespread public disquiet with torture and other abuses perpetrated by the police and other law-and-order officials.
In October, party leaders laid out proposals intended to end such abuses. The problem has been highlighted by a succession of convictions for murder, rape and robbery that courts have belatedly concluded were based on fake evidence and confessions made under torture.
In December, China’s top court announced that some performance targets and rankings for courts would be abolished.
Lawyers and experts said that abolishing the official targets could make it easier for the Chinese police, prosecutors and courts to withstand demands to deliver swift convictions, but they would remain under pressure from official expectations.
Under Xi, the government has shown no retreat from its long-standing hard-line stance toward crime and defiance of its hold on power, especially political opposition.
Xi has repeatedly said that the legal apparatus must remain firmly in the grip of the party, and he reinforced that in a message to the Political and Legal Affairs Committee meeting, Xinhua reported Tuesday.
"Nurture a legal corps loyal to the party, loyal to the country, loyal to the people and loyal to the law," Xi said.
"Ensure the handle of the knife is firmly in the hand of the party and the people," he added, evoking a phrase used by Mao Zedong.