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Programmed Sentencing in China 172

An anonymous reader writes to mention a unique combination of coding and social justice. A court in China has been using software to mete out sentences in criminal cases. The program has been in use for almost two years, and has passed judgement in some 1,500 cases. From the article: "'The software can avoid abuse of discretionary power of judges as a result of corruption or insufficient training,' the paper quoted Zichuan District Court chief judge, Wang Hongmei, as saying. But some Chinese newspapers criticized the move as a farce that highlighted the 'laziness of the court' and that would not curb judicial corruption as touted."
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Programmed Sentencing in China

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  • by Average_Joe_Sixpack ( 534373 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @02:27PM (#16106987)
    Would that be the same as a life sentence?
  • as long as there is human oversight
    • by E-Rock ( 84950 )
      Of course once the computer's decision on sentencing goes to a recommendation that is reviewed by a human, you lose the purported intention to "avoid abuse of discretionary power of judges."

      Maybe if a committe of legal scholars reviewed the cases to make sure the computer was doing what it was programmed, but that's a whole system to administer.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      Human oversight? Isnt that the same as not having the software?

      1. The lack of weighing of unforeseen or unprogrammed circumstances. For example if the crime committed for an overall benefit (the person stole a loaf of bread to prevent his kid from immediate starvation).

      2. The lack of equivalence in punishment (for example, if a person is disabled theif receives a conviction of "hard labor" would result in harsher punishment than someone who isn't.)

      3. Buggy, or deliberate loophole having, software.

      4. A pers
    • The main issue I have with this is distance. From the perspective of the accused, the laws were made by a big group of old men and women, hundreds if not thousands of miles away. The lawmakers are so far removed from the citizens that they don't ever totally understand the repercussions their laws are going to have on the public. If we remove the human judge, we will be bound just that much more completely by unjust laws that have unintended consequences.

      Human oversight would be better than nothing, bu
    • First of all, there's no real difference between using a computer to do the sentencing and using a rule book written on dead trees. It used to be that books were expensive enough that they were mostly used for important things, and books written by Authorities were Extra Important Sounding, but that's long gone. Now we've got computers, which get to sound Mysterious and Scientific at the same time. With computers, it's easier for the judge to say "See, the computer said it, it must be Authoritative", wit
    • So you get two years instead of five years? If "the system" or whatever wants to get you, they won't do it in the public eye. They'll compensate and do it inside the prison and make that two years seem like hell.
  • Yay human rights! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by TJ_Phazerhacki ( 520002 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @02:28PM (#16107001) Journal
    I for one fear our new robotic sentencing overlords. Seriously, this is rediculous - why not have a better judicial monitoring system if you care about the people?

    Oh wait....

    • by TopShelf ( 92521 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @02:51PM (#16107251) Homepage Journal
      From TFA:
      Despite campaigns to reform China's courts, judicial abuses, official influence and arbitrary sentencing remain a widespread concern, particularly in lower courts where many judges have not even been to law school.

      It sounds like this can be a tool to help standardize the application of the law, which varies widely from place to place. That's a step in the right direction. No, it's not going to result in a "perfect" legal system, but it could help improve things.
    • Re:Yay human rights! (Score:5, Interesting)

      by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @04:55PM (#16108565)
      Well, wait a minute... what is law in the first place, if not a "procedure" for judging real-life situations and doling out punishment? In the good old days, King David would solve problems creatively, e.g. proposing to cut a baby in half if two women claimed to be the mother. But now we have laws, which are supposed to reduce justice to following a set of steps. No current computer technology could hear out complex arguments and decide whether to render a "not guilty" verdict, but sentencing seems simpler yet more arbitrary, so perhaps a "jail calculator" isn't such a terrible idea. I know I wouldn't want to be sentenced by a judge who had a fight with his wife that morning.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Braino420 ( 896819 )
        In the good old days, King David would solve problems creatively, e.g. proposing to cut a baby in half if two women claimed to be the mother.
        That should actually be attributed to his son; King Solomon. The wise one...
  • Chinese newspapers shut down by government.
  • Remember the robot world?
    • The amazonian femputer also doled out sentences on futurama. Particularly "Death by Snu-Snu"!
    • I can see it now:
      ROBOT BAILIFF: Uh-oh! He froze up again!
      ROBOT MAYOR: Try control alt delete.
      ROBOT #1: Jiggle the cord.
      ROBOT #2: Turn him off and on.
      ROBOT #3: Clean the gunk out of the mouse.
      FRY: Call technical support.
      ROBOT BAILIFF: OK, OK, he's back online.

      Fear of a Bot Planet -- Futurama
  • The computer is your friend.
  • I first read the title as "Programmer Sentencing in China."

    I was thinking, man, when they say no Hungarian notation, they mean it!
    • i read the same thing, but thought it meant they were sentencing people to become programmers.

      "I sentence you to clean up this source code... Comments?! You expect comments?! This is maximum security, buddy, you dont get comments here. Maybe next time you think twice before stealing that cookie."
    • by Sabaki ( 531686 )
      My first thought on seeing the headline was that they had mastered natural language parsing and were writing programmatically generated sentences.
    • by Reziac ( 43301 ) *
      I read it the same way.... hey! do you suppose we've already been sentenced, and don't know it??

  • The Therac-25 [wikipedia.org] incident? Should we trust the programmers with people's lives?
    • I could easily find an incident where a human doctor killed one or more patients on accident or on purpose. Shall we ban humans from practicing medicine too?
  • by mordors9 ( 665662 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @02:32PM (#16107057)
    My understanding is this method won out over the Magic 8 ball or picking a fortune cooke out of a hat.
    • by x2A ( 858210 )
      Yeah but it was the computer program that judged which method should win!

  • Wonder what OS this software is running on?
  • I won't be moving to China any time soon.
  • I can't wait to get that over here. Then when I get caught killing that family of 5 that cut me off on the drive home, I can just get some hacker friends to modify the code and make my sentence a fine of $50.
  • Moo (Score:5, Funny)

    by Chacham ( 981 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @02:36PM (#16107106) Homepage Journal
    while (thereAreCases()) {
      defendant = defendant.getNext();
      defendant.innocent = (defendant.powerful || defendant.powerful);
      if (!defendant.innocent) firingSquad.add(defendant);
      else firingSquad.add(prosecutor);
  • by dave562 ( 969951 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @02:36PM (#16107107) Journal
    I just had this visual of this poor Chinese guy surrounded by a bunch of blinking screens, his hand hovering over a big red button, praying, "No whammies, no whammies!!"
  • by ptr2004 ( 695756 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @02:38PM (#16107118)
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Now that's what i call an executable!
  • Sounds Insane: (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Visaris ( 553352 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @02:38PM (#16107121) Journal
    I find this idea very scary...

    We live in a world where we are all criminals. Don't think you break any laws? Think again. Everyone who is old enough to read this post has broken many laws in their life, even if they were minor laws.

    When you live in a world where everyone is a criminal, the idea of a computer judge is very scary. The computer will not be able to make common sense decisions about what needs to be done to arrive at the judgement that is best for everyone.

    In a world with imperfect laws, enforcing the laws perfectly is immoral, unjust, and IMHO, just insane.

    'There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What's there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted - and you create a nation of law-breakers - and then you cash in on guilt. Now that's the system, Mr. Rearden, and once you understand it, you'll be much easier to deal with'.
    - Ayn Rand, "Atlas Shrugged"
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      Uhhh... no, everyone is not a criminal. That is why we have a difference between criminal and civil (torte?) law.
      • by Visaris ( 553352 )
        I suppose "criminal" does only apply to a subset of the current legislature. Thanks for the correction.
    • In a world with imperfect laws, enforcing the laws perfectly is immoral, unjust, and IMHO, just insane.

      Oh, don't worry, they know. This is just the first step. The next step is to have the laws written by computer programs, and then both the law and its enforcement will be perfect.

      It will be a beautiful utopia...

      Oh, hold on, there's an Enforce-o-bot at my door, come to execute me. Seems I'm guilty of excessive sarcasm. Which is true. See, the system works!
    • In a world with imperfect laws, enforcing the laws perfectly is immoral, unjust, and IMHO, just insane.
      No non-trivial software is perfect [murphys-laws.com].
    • I agree with you, yet...

      I don't see how that applies here.

      From my reading of the article, the software does not enforce laws, it enforces standardized sentencing.
      My understanding is that the software only plays a role once guilt has already been determined. Its meant to prevent the local judges (who, as the article stated often haven't even been to law school) from imposing arbitrary prison sentences. The details of the crime are submitted and the program returns the sentence according to the established st
    • Ok, the problem with what you said is that you are assuming that the computer is also the jury. From what I gathered, this is not the case. If the computer program is merely handing out sentences, this means that China has basically implemented mandatory sentencing with a computer system. It's just a bunch of if then else statements really. If you steal a car, and you are convicted by jury, you get 2 years in prison, etc... Some people don't like mandatory sentencing because they feel that a judge should ha
  • Computer: "I sentence you to [Blue Screen of Death]".

    Defendant: "But I only jaywalked!"

    Executioner: "The computer's judgement is final." ::readies blue tarp and axe::

  • by apillowofclouds ( 699564 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @02:40PM (#16107137)
    "It looks like you're trying to sentence someone. Would you like some help?"
  • "The software can avoid abuse of discretionary power of judges as a result of corruption or insufficient training," the paper quoted Zichuan District Court chief judge, Wang Hongmei, as saying.

    http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/art icles/2006/08/26/unusual_sentence_in_racial_attack / [boston.com]

    The scion of a prominent North Shore family avoided jail time yesterday for beating two black teenagers with a metal baton in 2002, but a judge imposed unusual consciousness-raising conditions on the young man fo

  • But some Chinese newspapers criticized the move as a farce that highlighted the 'laziness of the court' and that would not curb judicial corruption as touted."

    What kind of penalty does the software mete out to Chinese reporters who dare question the wisdom or methods of the courts?
  • by MalleusEBHC ( 597600 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @02:45PM (#16107195)
    It would be good to come up with (and make public) an algorithm for determining a sentence. It shouldn't automatically be entered as the official sentence, but then a judge would have a good baseline to go off of. If the judge wanted to make a significant increase or decrease to the sentence, they would need to demonstrate the extenuating circumstances. An added bonus is that there would be a quantitative metric for determining how judges are performing.

    Of course, the toughest part is creating a fair algorithm. But hey, in theory it has got potential.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by mobby_6kl ( 668092 )
      >It would be good to come up with (and make public) an algorithm for determining a sentence.

      Here's a prototype:

      perl -e "$s = int(rand(99)); print qq(You are hereby sentenced to $s years of imprisonment\n)"

      This code is released under the BSD license, feel free to deploy it as-is or modify to fit your needs.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Atmchicago ( 555403 )

      Using a computer algorithm to determine sentences is ridiculous. No two cases are the same, which means that there are an incredible number of variables. Furthermore, even if we could isolate all the variables, we still would have no idea how to make an algorithm that would take them all into account.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by bunions ( 970377 )
        You can say the same things about medical diagnoses - and yet, decision support software for doctors is used quite often.

        It's a guide and a method to keep tabs on the judicial record. I view it with cautious optimism.
      • by f97tosc ( 578893 )
        Using a computer algorithm to determine sentences is ridiculous. No two cases are the same, which means that there are an incredible number of variables.

        And is man or machine better at reaching consistent decisions from an incredible number of variables?
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by dbcad7 ( 771464 )
        True that no two cases the same, but we are talking about sentencing

        crime.. stealing a candy bar..
        perp 1 is well off buisnessman
        perp 2 is starving homeless man
        perp 3 is bug-eyed dope-feind
        perp 4 is diabetic
        perp 5 says he just forgot to pay

        Should any of these people receive a different punishment for their crime than the others got ?
        And how should the others feel if their punishment more severe ?

        Then throw in the mix different judges..
        judge 1 just had his car stolen
        judge 2 has a relative who is on

      • Too many variables? No problem, the computer can take them all into account in no time, no problem.

        No two cases are the same? So what. Computers are good at recognizing patterns if they are described properly.

        You would hav no idea. People cleverer than you may have.

        And frankly, it is not like all is black magic. Sentencing is suppossed to follow strict, codified guidelines.

        Experts during a trial would decide which attenuating cirsunstances exist, and which aggravating ones existed in a crime judged as commi
    • Ah no.... (Score:3, Interesting)

      by woolio ( 927141 )
      How would the punishment of theft be related to the amount stolen?


      If shoplifting a $20 "X" is a crime, when what about a CEO embezzling 100s of millions?

      Firing squad for the whole family? Execution by worms?

      Or what about murder? Even accidents involving negligence are punished... How should an army captain be punished? Or a police capatin?

    • by syousef ( 465911 )
      You're the sort of person that thinks a good way to pay programmers is how many kloc they write aren't you?
  • "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread." - Anatole France

    Is a computer dolling out punishment any more rediculous than legislatures passing laws with mandatory minimum sentancing? Yes, sentancing guides should be given but where is the judicial descretion to balance the punishment and the criminal act.

    What's the next step? Let the computer determine what is or is not criminal intent.

    "Linux boxes, PC's,
  • by Ravear ( 923203 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @02:53PM (#16107272)
    the software comments yuo out!
  • I'll bet, if this is implemented in the U.S., that credit reporting data will be a large part of the sentencing formula.

    On an aside, one may order a consumer copy of their credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus free of charge per year at http://www.annualcreditreport.com/ [annualcreditreport.com] (one tip is to order a report from a different credit bureau every 4 months)

  • So the software is made by the same company that makes those very accurate voting machines that I been reading about in Slashdot?
  • (A)bort, (E)xecute, (R)etry
  • by Dekortage ( 697532 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @03:01PM (#16107374) Homepage

    ...but we call it electronic voting [wikipedia.org]. The sentences have much bigger consequences, but are revised every four years.

    (tongue firmly planted in cheek!)

  • I worked for a company that had implemented a high-priced software package that tied logistics (shipping, BOM's etc.) and accounting together. The promise was streamlining warehouse and accounting across all of their subsidiaries/offices in other countries.

    So, the way accounting set things up was that they figuratively disconnected the accounting and logistics BOM/shipping/receiving systems such that the information provided for physical goods could not be accurate. How is that possible you may wonder? W
  • I'm sure the US court system has looked at something similar, but balked at the cost and complexity of factoring in how much the defendent spent on their lawyer.
  • An anonymous reader writes to mention...

    Anyone else find it interesting that the author of a post about Chinese government policies is Anonymous?
  • ..... Does it run on Windows? If so, then defendants are in REALLY big trouble if it does a BSOD.
  • Am I the only one who thought of Doctor Theophilus and the computer council of judges on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century?

    I was?

    I am so very ashamed.
  • Judges in this country use sentensing guidlines, a thick volume which essencially implements an algorithm for sentencing. Of course, everything is subject to appeal. The point is that a Judge's failure to follow the guideline can raise a red flag and he will have to defend his decision to deviate. That is the differance between algorithm w/ appeal versus no algorithm.
  • by wfberg ( 24378 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @03:34PM (#16107701)
    A similar system has been in use in the Netherlands for some time. Not for judges, but for prosecutors. Most laws state e.g. that if you're guilty you "shalle be imprisoned for no longer than 10 years". Now, those maximum sentences are only applied if you've been a real asshole. If there are mitigating circumstances, you can expect some leniency. For example; you have no history of criminal behavior, you were provoked, etc. Those circumstances don't influence culpability, but they can influence sentencing.

    To help prosecutors in demanding a punishment that fits the crime, and more importantly to have prosecutors demand the same punishment in similar cases, regardless of jurisdiction, there's a piece of software to help them out. Just enter the specifics of the case, and the software will work out the sentence you should ask for based on a) guidelines given out by the national government, and b) comparisons to similar cases from a historical database.

    Now, the software just comes up with a suggestion, so the prosecutor can still say "well, in similar cases people have gotten 6 years in jail, but this guy's a real asshole based on characteristics I can't fill in on these forms, so he deserves to raise the average". Or the prosecutor can decide to stay on the lenient side. Whichever way though, if there's a discrepency from guidelines+case law, he'll have to explain it.

    Now, ultimately, it's still in the judge's hands. The judge may attach greater weight to certain mitigating circumstances, and less to others, and come up with a different sentence. But the judge is also aware of the guidelines and statistics.

    The reason for such a system is to increase the dependability of the judicial system. If two people commit the same crime, in the same manner, for the same reasons, and in the same circumstances, they should get the same punishment; justice, after all, should be blind.
  • we were studying utopias / distopias in my english class and we were put into groups for a project. our group chose to play with the idea that justice in a utopian society would be completely impartial, so we tried emulating sentencing guidelines in excel with the idea being that a computer would be the only reliably impartial judge. we started with the code of virginia, throwing in some of our own ideas on how to factor in a person's past history, and ended up with a monumentally complicated spreadsheet. l
  • Swedish physicist and Nobel prize laureate Hannes Alfvén wrote, in 1966, The Tale of the Great Data Machine -- A Vision. It's a dystopic description of a future where computers (with punch cards) have taken over all functions in our lives -- including scentencing. Oh, and after a while, they all crash and throw civilization back in time. The author used the pseudonym Olof Johannesson, btw.
  • Defendant: "I'm innocent, can I go free?"

    tap tap tap...

    Computer says no.


  • [Cobolt Stadium, Thodin's Trial]

    Female Judge Computer: The arch Heretic, pirate and rebel of the Ostral-B pair, Thodin. Thodin of the Ostral-B pair is accused of piracy in the first degree, of 26 counts of piracy, of influencing the minds of believers, of questioning His Shadow's truth and wisdom, and destroying 231 military vessels, loyal to His Shadow.

    [A group of children arrive on the Cluster]

    Guard: His Shadow bids welcome to the finest examples of youthful devotion in all of the 20,000 planets.

  • string generateSentence(string crime) {
       if (rand() % 2 == 0) {
           return "life in political prison";
       } else {
           return "death";
  • "Honestly, it says it right here, you get 1,250 years in hard labor for illegally parking your bicycle."
    • Also check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazil_(movie) [wikipedia.org]

      As an initial advice for the sentence, it might make sense and stimulate objectivity of the judicial system, unless objective parts are put into the program of course (risk for media attention, etc). But to be blindly followed it would be so wrong, so wrong...

  • I notice that this is sentencing, not the trial. This could be either good or bad, and from the facts presented we can't tell. I can see being *very* nervous about it... but it could be a significant step towards equal justice before the law.

    OTOH "The law forbids both the rich and the poor man from sleeping under the bridge" -- Villon

  • I wonder if the programmers wrote in some cute "back doors" into the sentencing software... where, you could kill someone and, provided it was through bludgeoning, with a brown rock, on a Tuesday, with your left hand.... you only end up serving a week in prison.

Experience varies directly with equipment ruined.