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by Mike Zazaian September 14, 2006 - 1:31pm, No Comments

Child waving a Chinese flag

A new piece of software being used in the Chinese legal system suggests prison sentences for judges to hand down to criminals.

China has become industrialized at an alarming rate over the past five years, but with industrialization comes some big decisions on how the country should be run. China needs to make one such decision on a technology that recommends prison sentences for criminals, taking some of the decision-making out of the hands of humans.

Developed by engineers at Boya-Yingjie Communication Science, the software delves through a massive database of cases and legal precendent and decides how other such cases have been dealt with. The software then recommends a sentence, and the Judge users the recommendation to hand out a final verdict.

In one case a farmer in the Shandong Province of China slashed a victim in the face with a knife, then turned himself into the police. Using the situation of the trial the computer recommended a prison term of 5.4 months. The farmer was given 6 months by the judge.

According to Chinese officials, the goal of the software is not only to standardize sentencing across the country, but also to limit judiciary corruption. And while the software makes recommendations based on legal precedent, judges are in no way obligated to follow it. According to a team of Chinese political scholars, the new software will also accelerate China’s legal system:

The system will avoid different penalties for the same crime. Its usage will help enhance the efficiency of criminal trials.

Despite the inital shock of hearing that computers are handing out sentences to criminals, this technology might prove very useful. Keep in mind that the software, like any book that judges have at their disposal, is just a tool. This particular tool, however, saves legal officials a great deal of time in searching through books and legal records in order to hand down a sentence. That said, it seems like the software would run into problems when it begins to make recommendations based on sentences that the computer itself suggested. At that point the human element is completely eliminated from the system, and the software could become more harmful than useful.

[via Ars Technica]