China gets look at U.S. justice

Delegation tours Carroll County jail, sheriff's office to discuss crime and punishment

August 03, 2006|By LAURA MCCANDLISH | LAURA MCCANDLISH,SUN REPORTER

Huanying, the poster read in Chinese - "welcome." The hosts served their foreign guests oolong and green teas, while the visitors adhered to custom by presenting gifts of Chinese scrolls, folk tapestries and red cloisonne vases.

But the diplomatic gestures and cordial talk at yesterday's meeting in Westminster belied the grim topic under discussion - crime and punishment - as Carroll County officials greeted a group of prison wardens and justice officials from China, a nation long criticized by human rights groups for its handling of suspects and prisoners.

It was a proud occasion for the Carroll County Sheriff's Office, which had never played host to a Chinese delegation. The group, sponsored by the University of Maryland's Office of International and Executive Programs, included officials from China's Ministry of Justice and wardens from a dozen provinces and regions.

The visitors hope to apply what they learned on a three-week tour of U.S. institutions and numerous workshops on community policing, as they attempt to create more alternatives to incarceration in China, said Charles Wellford, director of the university program.

"They're genuinely interested in better understanding how the U.S. does criminal justice," said Wellford, former chairman of the criminal justice department at College Park. "Then their job, of course, is to figure out how that applies in a [Chinese] context, as they continue to think about reforming their systems. It isn't like the U.S. has it perfect."

Indeed, it was hardly mentioned in yesterday's three-hour meeting that Maryland's prison system has been racked by a string of killings and assaults on inmates and guards.

Nor, except in one awkward exchange, did anyone raise the conditions in China's prisons, or mention rights groups' allegations that dissidents are routinely tortured and jailed for revealing "state secrets."

Sitting at tables in a large rectangle, every warden described his home region through a translator. Most are from central and western provinces, away from the populous eastern cities, some managing jails in autonomous regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet, where members of some ethnic groups have historically been suppressed.

"It's an honor to see your land and county; it's such a beautiful place," Liu Weimin, leader of the Ministry of Justice delegation, said through translator Song Zhao. "We feel like this is our home."

The Chinese visitors were drawn to the low crime rates in Carroll County, passing up the chance to meet with their counterparts in Baltimore and Prince George's County.

"Prince George's has an extremely high crime rate," said Ko-Hsin Hsu, a Taiwan native who is Wellford's criminology research assistant. "That cannot represent the whole of America. We wanted an average police station."

Throughout the presentation, the all-male delegation listened intently. However, digital cameras, cell phones and mini-camcorders were operating constantly.

Some confusion arose over how centralized Chinese prisons and police agencies are.

"In the U.S., the federal, state and county prisons are separate," Carroll County Sheriff Kenneth L. Tregoning said. "I don't know how it works in China."

"We just have one system," Zhang Jun, another officer with the Ministry of Justice in Beijing, said in English. "All the prisons are covered by the national system."

It's a less centralized system than they described, says one critic. Prisons are still run by local officials and fragmented by bureaucracy among the police, the secret police, justice department and military divisions, according to Murray Scot Tanner, a senior political scientist and China expert at the Rand Corp. in Washington.

"It's probably an exaggeration to talk about a Chinese prison system," Tanner said. "Since they're run by local officials, the quality of the personnel, buildings, food, treatment of prisoners, as far as we can tell, varies enormously from locality to locality. The national Ministry of Justice has very little power to force the local government to bring the prisons up to the national standard."

The visiting wardens asked why American wardens don't drill rules into new detainees or subject them to mandatory education programs, as is common in China.

Warden George Hardinger, who oversees Carroll County's Detention Center, responded.

"It seems like we have a lot of things in common, but we cannot require education programs, that they change their lives," he said. "We can only make that available to them."

The Carroll police and the Chinese wardens clearly agreed on one thing: that most crimes stem from drug abuse. However, a stark difference was not addressed - drug traffickers, rapists and white-collar criminals can face the death penalty in China.

During their subsequent detention center tour, Maj. Denny Strinedid asked the wardens about corporal punishment, or caning.

"I'm not sure, maybe it happened several years before, but now not as much," Zhang said, caught a bit off-guard.

When Strine freely marched into the women's unit, the Chinese visitors were surprised. Male guards watch male prisoners in China and women guards deal with female inmates to prevent accusations of rape and other abuses, Zhang said. But after also visiting jails in London, the Ministry of Justice is reconsidering, he said.

"The UK system tells us they have a better relationship when the female staff manages the male prisoners," Zhang said.laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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