Confessions and Criminal Case Disposition in China

Article excerpt

This research examines confessions and criminal case disposition in China. It describes how wider economic reforms in China and subsequent changes in its legal system may have affected the nature and consequence of criminal confessions. Bivariate and multivariate analyses of a sample of 1,009 criminal court cases reveal that the majority of offenders confessed to their crime and that confession is associated with less severe punishments (e.g., lower risks for imprisonment, shorter sentences). Changes in the nature of confession and its impact on criminal court practices are also examined before and after legal reforms in the mid-1990s. These context-specific findings are then discussed in terms of their implications for understanding the interrelationships between legal structure, legal culture, and case disposition in communitarian-based societies.

Sociolegal scholars have long recognized that legal decisions are affected by the wider legal structure and cultural context in which these decisions take place. In fact, it is widely documented that legal outcomes, such as rates of civil litigation, court appeals, availability of post-conviction remedies, guilty pleas, and the nature and severity of criminal sentences, are shaped by aspects of the prevailing legal structure and legal culture (see Black 1976; Casper, Tyler, & Fisher 1988; Clarke & Kurtz 1983; Epp 1990; Galanter 1983; Heumann 1978; Mather & Yngvesson 1980-81; Miethe & Moore 1988; Miethe 1987; Musheno, Gregware, & Drass 1991).

If it is axiomatic that changes in sociolegal conditions affect legal outcomes, it would follow that there would be changes in the nature of legal decisions in Chinese society after the massive economic reforms of the 1980s, especially after the major revisions of the Criminal Procedural Law (CPL) in 1996. The legal reforms codified in the 1996 CPL significantly altered the organization of the Chinese criminal justice system and enhanced defendants' rights in such domains as the right to legal counsel, crossexamination, protections against coerced confession, and appeals (Luo 2000). The growth in legal professionalism and formalism that derives from these changes in legal structure has also been accompanied by changes in legal culture, including the greater acceptance of civil litigation and pursuit of individuals' rights within the legal realm (Cheng 2000).

Although China's legal reforms may affect a variety of decisions about civil litigation and criminal processing (see Lu & Brass 2002; Lu & Miethe 2002), they are especially likely to alter the prevalence of criminal confessions and their possible consequences on case disposition. Traditionally, both the legal structure and the wider Chinese culture have actively encouraged, if not almost required, defendants to confess to criminal wrongdoing. After the 1996 legal reforms, the growth in legal protections for criminal defendants, the greater cultural acceptance of individuals' rights, and the increased legal formalism may have produced a sociolegal context in which confession may be less prevalent and less influential on legal decisions. Whether or not criminal confessions have changed in China under this evolving legal environment, however, has not been investigated in previous research.

After a brief description of the social and legal context of confessions in China, the current study uses summary court documents on 1,009 criminal cases to explore the extent, nature, and consequences of confessions on legal decisions. The use of confession and its impact on case outcome is examined within the more general context of communitarian societies. The results of this study are then discussed to elucidate the interrelationships between legal structure, legal culture, and legal decisions within a changing social, economic, and legal context.

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