Can restorative justice reduce incarceration rates?: Stories from China

Mr Yan Zhang1, Dr. Yiwei Xia2

1School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) , The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia,

2School of Law, Southwestern University of Finance and Economics, Chengdu, China

Reducing incarceration rates is one fundamental goal of restorative justice (RJ), which is embedded in RJ’s transformative legitimacy. This article endeavours to understand this goal in Chinese context. It focuses on the recently legislated nation-wide criminal reconciliation which is configurated in the political ‘Social Harmony’ transformation and the ‘Balancing Leniency and Harshness’ reform in the criminal justice system in China since the early 2000s. A mix-method has been employed to facilitate the interpretation both at the macro level data and the micro implementation of criminal reconciliation by Chinese police, prosecutors and judges. The findings show that criminal reconciliation can provide an alternative to incarceration throughout the criminal justice procedure (investigation, prosecution, and trial). A comprehensive quantitative analysis of 189,328 judicial verdicts of minor injury cases from 2014 to 2017 retrieved from the China Judicial Verdicts Website further demonstrates that restorative mechanisms (compensation, forgiveness, apology, etc.) reduced offenders’ incarceration rates and length, however, the new criminal reconciliation played an ‘insignificant’ role shown in the dataset. Interviews with judges revealed that when making sentencing decisions Chinese judges prefer the existing sentencing guidance and the long-practiced informal mediation approach, instead of the new criminal reconciliation due to concerns of its ambiguous procedure and strict requirements. It argues RJ plays an important role in deviating minor criminals from incarceration in China, however the top-down impetus of Chinese government to institutionalize RJ is confronting with resistances from street-level bureaucrats.


Yan Zhang (Ian) commenced his Ph.D. program at RegNet at the Australian National University in July 2015. His research interest is restorative justice in China. His Ph.D. thesis is titled as “China: the Powerhouse and Resistor of Restorative Justice”. Currently, Yan is the secretary of the Asian Criminological Society and works as the managing editor of the Asian Journal of Criminology. Yan also serves as a coordinator of the Canberra Restorative Community.


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