Government officials found guilty of dereliction of duty will face tougher punishments, according to a judicial interpretation released by China's top court.
The interpretation, which takes effect on Wednesday, lists concrete criteria for two forms of malpractice: abuse of authority and failure to fulfill one's duty.
Officials responsible for accidents that cause the death of one or more people or injuries to at least three people will receive up to three years in prison.
Those responsible for accidents that kill three or more people or seriously injure nine or more people will receive up to seven years in prison.
Sun Jungong, spokesman for the Supreme People's Court, said at a news conference on Tuesday that many courts tend to hand out light sentences to officials, a result of a lack of concrete interpretations about dereliction of duty in criminal law.
The judicial interpretation is expected to encourage government officials to fulfill their duty more diligently, Sun said.
Derelict officials should receive a combined punishment for multiple crimes if they also took bribes, according to the interpretation.
Government officials responsible for group decisions that lead to derelict activities are guilty of dereliction of duty, it says.
In the past, many high-ranking officials could be exempted from criminal punishment in dereliction cases caused by a group decision, and only low-level officials were punished, Sun said.
"We should not only swat the flies, but also beat the tigers," said Sun.
Apart from government officials, staff members at State-owned enterprises and institutes who are authorized to carry out government duties could also be charged with criminal dereliction of duty, according to the judicial interpretation.
Those who misuse their authority, or fail to fulfill their duties, resulting in grave food and drug safety cases should be given severe sentences.
Pei Xianding, president of the No 2 Criminal Tribunal of the Supreme People's Court, said food and drug safety is intrinsic to people's health, and the supervisors who fail to fulfill their duties in such cases must be seriously punished.
"Unlike misbehavior such as making substandard shoes or bags, making inferior food and drugs can directly harm people," he said.
In China's criminal law, 37 types of malpractice are listed under the crime of dereliction of duty. The interpretation on Tuesday refers only to two kinds of malpractice. More judicial interpretations will be released this year, Pei said.
Chen Tao, a lawyer and member of the Beijing Lawyers Association, said derelict activities should be punished severely.
"Officials responsible for accidents such as bridge collapses or coal mine floods should be punished severely because there are always many casualties in such cases," Chen said.
The courts tried 4,928 dereliction of duty cases from January to November 2012, and 4,426 people were sentenced, according to the Supreme People's Court on Tuesday.