December 28, 2015

Research to Look into the Use of Social Background Investigations in Cases Involving Juveniles

In August, the ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) and Chinese academic partners held a conference to launch a nation-wide study into the use of social background investigations (SBIs) in juvenile criminal justice cases. Held in Beijing, the conference was attended by about 100 stakeholders.

Recent revisions to China’s 2013 Criminal Procedure Law codify several key measures that defend the rights of juveniles. One such measure allows police, procurators and courts to conduct SBIs to understand juvenile defendants’ personal background and to determine the appropriateness of non-custodial alternatives to pre-trial detention, non-prosecution or probation instead of prison time.

The August conference was attended by judges, procurators, academics, and provincial and central-level officials. Government officials, including representatives from the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, shared their respective experiences with social background investigations and associated challenges. The discussions helped to increase participants’ understanding of the circumstances surrounding these investigations, enriching the study team’s survey design.

Conference participants indicated that although SBIs often serve as the basis for pivotal legal decisions, many localities lack the capacity to properly conduct and use the investigations. For example, investigators often do not know what kinds of questions to ask, how to properly engage a defendant’s family and friends, or how to coordinate with other justice sector actors. As a result and to the detriment of juvenile defendants, SBIs often provide little valuable information to decision-makers.

While several government agencies are collaboratively drafting guidelines on how to implement SBIs for juvenile cases, currently no consensus exists on best practices for such investigations. ABA ROLI and program partners are conducting surveys and interviews with procurators, judges, lawyers, police officers, as well as juvenile defendants and their families to gather empirical data that will inform policymakers’ decisions. Findings from the study, which is being conducted in 12 locations across China, will lead to recommendations on how to improve the SBI system and a practice manual for courts, procurators and police.

Participants of the August conference said that the event afforded them a rare chance to communicate with their counterparts from around the country. “Juvenile justice reforms have been going on for a long time now,” said one judge, “but it is difficult to have the opportunity to share experiences like this. I hope there [will be] more conferences like this in the future.” Another judge emphasized the importance of empirical research in improving the use and value of SBIs. “There is a difference between reforms and implementation,” he said, “and without empirical research there is no way to correct this difference.”

In the coming months, the project team will conduct field research in 12 localities throughout China, and create a set of recommendations for policymakers as well as a practice manual for justice sector officials on how to conduct SBIs. To further raise awareness of this issue, the project team will create a documentary based on testimonials it collects.

To learn more about our work in China, contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at rol@americanbar.org.