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A second opportunity

By Zhou Wenting ( China Daily ) Updated: 2013-11-12 08:13:18

A second opportunity

Ma Lihua,31, is the one-to-one social worker for Zhao Haiming. She visits him three times a week, talking with him about his past and his future plans. Provided to China Daily

Young offenders are back on the right track, Zhou Wenting reports in Shanghai.

Zhao Haiming was given a choice: a job and an opportunity to wipe the slate clean, or a prison term.

He chose the former and now says he is on the road to redemption.

A Shanghai court gave the 17-year-old a 17-month suspended sentence on Oct 23 for distributing pornography. But instead of staring at the walls of a cell, he now works at a bathhouse in the city's Minhang district.

He is trained and supervised in the workplace and receives regular visits from a social worker, all aimed at keeping him on the straight and narrow.

Zhao says it is working. "I'll never break the law again," said the teenager, who grew up in Bozhou, a rural city in neighboring Anhui province. "I feel relieved I can start afresh."

Zhao's second chance is part of changes nationwide to the way courts handle juveniles. Since 2003, Shanghai has established almost 300 "observation bases", partner enterprises that offer a place to young offenders. The bathhouse in Minhang is one of them.

A second opportunity

More than 1,700 minors have been placed at one of these bases, and as yet not one has committed another crime, with 90 percent returning to either full-time education or employment, according to the city's prosecuting authority.

"If someone receives a two-year jail term at 18, there are decades for him or her to live after being released," said Fan Rongqing, director of juvenile prosecutions for Shanghai People's Procuratorate. "Proper help at this stage in their life could push them in the right direction.

"We see this project as a way to change a person's path," he said.

Alternatives

Zhou Haiming's original path saw him collide with the law on May 28, when he was detained for charging people in the street to download porn onto their cellphones.

After arriving in the city in March, he found work with a courier company, earning 2,000 yuan ($320) a month, and said he had hoped to make a little extra cash with his illicit side business.

"I didn't know it was against the law," said the teenager, who has only an elementary-level education.

Once in the hands of the authorities, Zhao's case was passed to prosecutors, who in July opted to send him to an observation base, the bathhouse, where he was assigned a mentor.

He is now being trained as a locker room attendant, while others in his situation have been put to work on assembly lines or as kitchen assistants, depending on the enterprise.

"Our intention is to help youngsters return to society, go back to their studies or work, after a spell of repentance and rehabilitation," Fan said.

"There's no need to jail juveniles who commit minor crimes," he said. Prison is like a vat of dye, "it's easy for people to learn new methods there to break the law, plus adult convicts can have a negative effect on the mentality of juveniles. It can make them even more hostile."

He said when prosecutors first experimented with alternatives to detaining young offenders many were released back into society and merely vanished off the radar.

Juveniles with Shanghai hukou, or household registration, were given suspended sentences in 63 percent of cases in 2010, while for those without hukou it was closer to 15 percent, according to Shanghai High People's Court. About 80 percent of young offenders in the city are nonnative residents.

In 2009, a professional team of social workers was placed in every Shanghai district to offer one-to-one guidance to youths that had been accused of crimes but had no guardian or fixed residence in the city. Sessions last on average three to six months before a court verdict.

Ma Lihua, a social worker with Shanghai Sunshine Community Youth Affairs Center, visits Zhao three times a week. She said they talk about his past and his plans for the future.

"Youths should be treated more leniently than adults," she said. "The attitude of a community toward them when they are involved in difficulties determines whether a seed of resentment or love is planted in their hearts.

"The result may not unfold immediately, but it will prove a major difference after a decade or two," she said.

One out of three juvenile offenders was given a non-custodial sentence in 2011, and the proportion was 50-50 in the first eight months of this year.

"The rate is 80 or 90 percent in some Western countries," Fan said, "but we've seen a great improvement in China, which a decade ago was incarcerating more than 90 percent of young offenders."

Beijing, Xi'an and Wuxi are among the cities that have already adopted similar approaches.

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