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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 August 2006, 23:13 GMT 00:13 UK
Chinese city's rethink on youth crime
The city of Kunming in south-west China is trying a more liberal way of treating young criminals amid concern about soaring youth crime in many cities.

It is a dramatic new approach for China, which is criticized internationally for its draconian punishments and abuse of criminals' rights, the BBC's Jill McGivering reports.

Le-le is a 15-year-old boy with short, spiky hair.

Le-le (back to the camera) with counsellor Mr Yang
Le-le says a lack of money makes young people commit crime

I met him in his family's cramped apartment in central Kunming, on the third floor of a public housing block. Inside, the plain white-washed walls were dingy. A single bare light bulb hung overhead.

Le-le looked shamefaced as I asked him how he had got into trouble with the police.

He told me that a year ago he and some friends beat up and mugged a group of students, stealing their mobile phones, bikes and cash.

Why, I asked him, did he think so many young people nowadays were breaking the law, as he had?

"Young people don't get enough pocket money from their parents," he said. "And some of them get a kick out of stealing and mugging. Some are really jealous of people with more money than them."

'Bad influence'

On the street outside, passers-by certainly did seem worried about rising youth crime.

Map showing Yunnan

"Yes, definitely, more young people are committing crimes," said one middle-aged woman. "I blame these violent television shows. They're a bad influence."

"These internet cafes are a bad influence too," said her husband. "Young people play violent games there and then, when they're short of money, they copy them and rob people."

The local fruit seller agreed. "Society is developing very rapidly," he said, "and bringing a surge in wealth. We need to do more to make sure people know what's right and wrong."

The response to most young offenders in China is punishment, not education. A teenager like Le-le would be sent to juvenile jail for about a year.

That could be a frightening experience. China is constantly being criticized for abusing prisoners' rights, for lengthy detentions without charge and for carrying out more executions each year than any other country.

'Go numb'

Zhou Shu-lian used to be a state prosecutor in Kunming. But since he retired, he has had second thoughts about the system.

Former state prosecutor Zhou Shu-lian
Mr Zhou's views on punishing young people have changed

"As a prosecutor, it was my job to punish young people, to apply the law," he told me. "I thought that was right. But now my ideas have changed."

I saw evidence of this new thinking on a Kunming basketball court where a group of young police officers was taking on a team made up of teenage boys, all of them young offenders.

The match was part of a revolutionary new programme in Kunming. Instead of young offenders being sent to jail, many are being allowed to stay with their families and carry on going to school while their progress is monitored.

Yang Jian is supervising Le-le and other youngsters. He says the new approach could save them from a life of crime.

"I've seen children locked up in jail," he said. "Their lives are miserable. They go numb. All they talk about is crime. And when they come out, they want to take revenge on society," he said.

A pedestrian walks past a billboard showing urban development in Beijing, July  2006
Rapid social change is seen as a cause of youth crime
After a year of supervision, Le-le is doing well. He is keeping out of trouble, his school work has improved and he is listening to his parents. He is talking now about going to university to study law.

His prospects, he says, are much better than if he had been sent to jail.

"I'd have lost all confidence in myself and my future," he told me. "And no-one would give me a job. Now I've got a second chance."

This tiny pilot project is being hailed as a great success. But it is just a start. One small project in the whole of China - still a long way from the overall reform of the country's justice system which many human rights groups demand.

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