Chinese Computer Court and the Death Penalty

This story from earlier this month describes the use of a computer system called “penalty calculator” to help courts decide on criminal sentencing. The system requires the court to enter relevant details, such as the type of crime and possible mitigating circumstances, and the system uses this information to recommend an appropriate sentence. The system’s advice does not have to be followed by the judges, at least for now.

“The system will avoid different penalties for the same crime. Its usage will help enhance the efficiency of criminal trials,” a document produced professor Chen Xingliang from Peking University, together with six other scholars from the Supreme People’s Court, Tsinghua University, Renmin University of China and the China University of Political Science and Law.

Perhaps more ominously, this story today reports that the system is being used to decide death sentences. China executes more people every year than every other country in the world combined, killing them either by firing squad or lethal injection. In 2004, Amnesty International estimated that at least 3,400 people had been executed and at least 6,000 sentenced to death by the end of the year. Last year of 2,148 documented executions worldwide, and 1,770 were carried out in China according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The death penalty is given for a wide variety of crimes in China including evading gasoline taxes,drug smuggling, and computer hacking. Earlier this year China announced that it would be reforming its laws and procedures regarding the death penalty in order to reduce the number of mistaken executions. In addition to firing squads, China makes use of mobile execution chambers and lethal injections to execute convicted criminals.

The software was developed by a Chinese company Boya-Yingjie Communication Science and has been under development since 2003. The software bases its decisions on a database of Chinese law and precedents. According to software designer Qin Ye, “The software is aimed at ensuring standardised decisions on prison terms. Our programs set standard terms for any subtle distinctions in different cases of the same crime.” It remains to be seen whether use of the software will increase or decrease the number of executions.

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