CNET reports, via Reuters and the South China Morning Post, that a courts in a city in Shandong province have been using a computer program to help calculate sentences in more than 1,500 criminal cases:
The software, tested for two years in a court in Zibo, a city in the eastern coastal province of Shandong, covered about 100 different crimes, including robbery, rape, murder and state security offenses, the South China Morning Post said, citing the software’s developer, Qin Ye.
The point of the software, according to its proponents, is, of course, to minimize human error:
The software can avoid abuse of discretionary power of judges as a result of corruption or insufficient training,” the paper quoted Zichuan District Court chief judge, Wang Hongmei, as saying.
However, this system has obviously aroused quite a bit of controversy and criticism. A lawyer and professor in Shanghai (in Chinese) has said that to give out different sentences even when the crimes and situations are similar is not a matter of human error, but a reflection of the fact that in actuality, no two cases are exactly the same. That is why the law stipulates that there is a range for punishments, e.g. 3-5 years, and not just one number.
A Shanghai judge interviewed also stated that Shanghai had something similar being developed or in the works in the 1980s, but that nothing came of it, and that Shanghai would not be adopting a computer based system anytime soon. Critics have said that judgments of this sort ought never be made by a computer. Proponents have replied that the program is merely a “calculator,” which is still operated by a human being and simply serves as a guide or reference to the judge, who in the end, makes the final decision.
The program is based on Chinese criminal law (量刑规范化实施细则) as well as about a hundred or so actual cases that can serve as references for lawyers and judges. According to the folks in Zibo (山东省淄博市), the program was vetted by legal experts at Beijing University, Tsinghua University, and the National Politics and Law University. They’re going to keep on using it and explore the possibility of spreading it to nearby cities or wherever else people are interested in it.