A Comparison of Crime and Criminal Justice Systems in Six Countries

(Source: Colourbox)

Six countries whose legal processes best epitomize distinct systems of criminal justice are China, *England, France, Germany, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. The United States, in this case, merely serves as a relative frame of reference or proximal source, but will not be under direct review beyond the following; namely, compared to the aforementioned nations, total per capita crime rates in the United States are in the moderate range, but higher than these countries [1], particularly in crimes of violence [2], murder [3], and rape. [4] Personal property theft is likewise higher for the United States than most of the others, generally. [5]

Some of the variations in crime rates can be attributed to how crimes are reported, as well as how they are classified. A rule of thumb which would apply to nearly every nation is that only about half of all crimes are reported to the police (however, there could also be cultural and demographic components to this). Differences in population counts and densities between various countries and locations must, too, be considered.

The asterisk next to England above is intended to denote that the English lack a formal constitution, which may present the query from some regarding what they use as a basis for deciding or forming criminal processes and criminal law. Simply put, England has common traditions that have evolved over time, and this includes social norms (i.e., what is acceptable and what is not).

Furthermore, though Saudi Arabia, similarly to Japan, reports low rates of crime, they achieve these low rates through the subjugation of their people (including harsh penalties for even trivial offenses), propaganda, the underreporting of crimes, and dubious data monitoring and collection.

Historically, democracies have always had higher crime rates than less democratic forms (e.g., monarchies). There is a public safety price that has to be paid even for freedom of speech. Soviet Russia, during the reign of Joseph Stalin, was noted for having one of the lowest crime rates in the world, but this was largely due to the state apparatus of social control. Part of the issue with Saudi Arabia and comparable nations is, based on the evidence, essentially in the same vein.

Historical Developments

For the six aforementioned countries, certain historical events had a particular effect on the development of their criminal law and criminal justice processes. The following is an overview of these events.

China (Confucianism, Communism)

The earliest laws in China were based on the traditions of Confucianism. The advent of Communist rule caused laws to be re-oriented toward the classless society of Marxist social philosophy. After these systems failed to allow China to keep up with the rest of the world economically, a more structured “rule of law” system was put in place that contained elements of the systems of the western democracies.

England (Roman Law, Anglo-Saxon Law)

Similar to the effect of the Napoleonic reforms, the Anglo-Saxon law consisted of translating existing Roman laws that were in Latin to the native language of the local population so that they could be understood. Magna Carta of 1215 further refined these laws, manifesting a separation of powers between the monarchy, the church, and the courts.

France (Roman Law, Napoleonic Code [French Civil Code])

Sharing Roman law with most of the rest of Europe, the French Civil Code first served to help eliminate favoritism toward the aristocracy over the common people. It was required that laws be promulgated (advertised) so that the general public was aware of them. These more egalitarian reforms, in addition, made meaningful impacts on comparable reforms which transpired in other European countries.


Roman law served as a basis for German laws, as did changes in France following the French Revolution; subsequently, the forming of the German Reich in 1871 led to the German Civil Code of 1896. Following World War II and the division of Germany into two separate countries, the western half of the region continued to be based on these laws with changes that had been introduced by the National Socialists reversed, and the eastern half began modifying its laws to more greatly correspond with Communist principles. Since the reunification of Germany, a set of laws chiefly based on the West German model have been in effect.

Japan (Confucianism, Buddhism, American Law [post-WWII])

Japan shares a common history with China up until roughly the fifth century, being founded substantially on Confucianism. Elements of western culture were being introduced in the 1800s, though, and the growth of Buddhism took elements from India. Modern Japan reformed its laws around American principles after the end of World War II.

Saudi Arabia

Islamic law, occasionally called Sharia law, governs most Middle Eastern countries. Some references use the term Islamic law as a milder form of Sharia law, but they are both heavily based on concepts from the Muslim holy book, the Quran. Historically, policing in Saudi Arabia was a tribal matter handled by local sheiks. Modernly, kings oversee the appointment of police, and the criminal justice system is highly centralized, plagued by cronyism or nepotism, and policing tends to be political in nature.

Salient Distinctions

Each of these nations’ criminal justice systems, processes, and mechanisms of control exemplify distinct approaches to criminal justice.

In China, the Communist or Socialist-based system places emphasis on what benefits the state as opposed to individual rights. Individuals accused of crimes plead their case directly to judicial panels without intervening representation by legal experts (lawyers). Laws are codified, but vague, leaving much to the interpretation of judges. Mao Zedong led a so-called “Cultural Revolution” to establish a Communist state, and laws became political in nature, attempting to establish a classless society. Subsequent to the time that the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong ended, China endeavored to establish a more uniform “rule of law” system, akin to the western democracies, with greater predictable outcomes and less corruption.

England employs a common law system, sometimes referred to as English common law, dating back to 1066 AD, which depends on the public being familiar with what is right and wrong, and judges’ decisions on the matter. Magna Carta further refined the relationship between the Crown, the Church, and Feudal lords, and granted certain freedoms to individuals. English common law also served as a foundation for U.S. laws as the colonies were being established.

French law is a form of unitary civil law — a written law — but centralized so that all criminal judgments are the same throughout the country, which differentiated it from the German system, even though the origins of the law are similar. It separates laws by categories, such as crimes against other persons, crimes against property, and crimes against the nation. Generally, French law is highly structured, leaving judges less leeway in making decisions. Different court systems are commonly based on the seriousness of the matter, from the Assize Court for the most serious felonies, the Correctional Court for less serious crimes, or a police tribunal for crimes not involving a jail sentence.

Germany uses a federal civil law concept which is more reliant on written law, but, additionally, allows for local variations. German law contains both federal and state statutes, and distinguishes between misdemeanors punishable for less than one year imprisonment and felonies which are punished for at least one year.

Since the end of World War II, Japan has employed a hybrid system which is rooted in diverse origins; heavily influenced by U.S. law, but with lingering elements from pre-existing Confucian and Buddhist foundations. Japan has a low crime rate [6] due to strict penal codes, a strong family structure, and strict gun laws. Japan is likewise somewhat a monoculture and lacks ghettos associated with minority groups.

In Saudi Arabia, emphasis is placed on Islamic religious principles; that is, marital laws which favor men and contain few benefits to women, high intolerance for moral taboos, and astringent punishments for crimes such as thievery. While there are other countries that incorporate Sharia law into civil systems, Saudi Arabia is somewhat unique in that it does not have a separate civil code at this time (although such has been proposed). The types of police in Saudi Arabia include the Department of Public Safety, who control deviance and carry out daily or mundane policing duties, the Mubahith, or secret police, who carry out high-level investigations and handle issues of national security, and the Mutawa, or moral or religious police, who ensure that people are living up to the standards of the Quran. The Mutawa are not formally trained, which, coupled with the harshness of Saudi law, leads to common abuses of power.

Author: Krista Milburn [@Femitheist]
Supplementary Resources (Last Accessed on May 18, 2017):

[1] Countries Compared by Crime > Total Crimes. International Statistics. Published online at NationMaster.com. Retrieved from http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/stats/Crime/Total-crimes

[2] Statistics for Crime > Violent Crime. Published online at NationMaster.com. Retrieved from http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/stats/Crime/Violent-crime

[3] Countries Compared by Crime > Murder Rate. International Statistics. Published online at NationMaster.com. Retrieved from http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/stats/Crime/Murder-rate#-description

[4] Countries Compared by Crime > Rape Rate. International Statistics. Published online at NationMaster.com. Retrieved from http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/stats/Crime/Rape-rate#-amount

[5] Harrendorf, S., & Heiskanen, M. (2010). International statistics on crime and justice. S. Malby (Ed.). European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control, affiliated with the United Nations (HEUNI). Retrieved from https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/Crime-statistics/International_Statistics_on_Crime_and_Justice.pdf

[6] Japan Crime Stats. Published online at NationMaster.com. Retrieved from http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/profiles/Japan/Crime