For the first time in New China's history, the number of criminals given death sentences with a two-year reprieve - which usually translate into life imprisonment - have this year outnumbered those sentenced to immediate execution, the country's top judge said on Friday.
This reflects the new trend since the Supreme People's Court (SPC) took back the right to review death sentences from local courts on January 1, Chief Justice Xiao Yang said.
"The number of death sentences has been gradually decreasing and human rights are being better protected," Xiao told a national work conference on court reform, without elaborating.
Capital punishment should be given "only to an extremely small number of serious offenders", he said.
"The judicial reform process has been progressing smoothly, with leniency shown in a growing number of criminal trials," he said.
In Jiangxi Province, the number of death sentences with immediate execution issued up to October was just half what it was in the same period last year, Kang Weimin, president of the provincial high people's court, said.
"The reform has made good progress in line with the global trend," he told a panel discussion.
As well as changing the judicial review process for death penalties, the reform also requires courts to conduct open trials for all second hearings of death sentence cases.
In the past, open trials in such cases were very rare.
Last month, Fan Lingxiang was found guilty of killing his sister and stepmother by a court in Qinghai Province and given the death sentence with immediate execution.
However, after reviewing the case, the SPC overturned the verdict on the grounds that immediately after committing the crime, Fan called an ambulance, turned himself in to police and offered to pay compensation.
The local court later sentenced him to death with a two-year reprieve.
Chen Weidong, a professor of criminal law at Renmin University of China, said the judicial reform had been a success.
"There has not been a rise in crime just because fewer people have been put to death," he told China Daily.
According to figures from the Ministry of Public Security, between January and July of this year, the numbers of cases involving four types of violent crime were all down from the same period last year. Murder cases fell 9.1 percent, rape cases 2.9 percent, arson cases 7.9 percent, and bombings 27 percent.
"The reform will promote judicial changes in other areas, including prudent investigation and prosecution," Chen said.
According to official figures, the number of people sentenced last year either to death or to between five years' to life imprisonment was 153,724.