The spate of heinous crimes committed by teens in recent years is driving the public to call for young offenders to be strictly punished under a revised Juvenile Law, the spirit of which now focuses instead on correcting troubled youth.
The ruling coalition hastily arranged deliberations on a bill to revise the law in the Diet this month, following the Golden Week fatal bus hijacking in Saga Prefecture and stabbing death of an elderly woman in Aichi Prefecture — both crimes committed by 17-year-old boys.
The government-proposed bill, however, had been put on the political back-burner since last year due to what the ruling parties initially claimed was a lack of time to fully debate the legislation.
Some experts said, however, that the current revision is not directly linked to the recent crimes committed by minors and will not be a preventive measure, because its main focus is revising the fact-finding stage of juvenile hearings.
With the coming general election in mind, lawmakers decided to take up the bill because they needed to demonstrate they are concerned about the issue, said Toshio Sawanobori, a professor emeritus of law at Kokugakuin University.
“But deliberations should not be done in an emotional manner and without the people’s thorough understanding of the law,” he said.
The bill calls for prosecutors to be present in family court hearings when the crimes are hotly contested, such as when the accused deny guilt.
Prosecutors would also have the right to appeal family court decisions, according to the bill.
It proposes extending the maximum detention period of the accused from the current four weeks to 12 and increasing the number of judges per case from one to three on a case-by-case basis.
The bill also calls for disclosure of information on court decisions to victims and their families.
Sawanobori said such revisions, except for the part where prosecutors are given the right to appeal, are understandable, because in some cases involving several youths, details of the crimes are often disputed.
“It is important to clarify what did or did not happen at crime scenes. This will enable judges to impose the appropriate corrective measures on youths, or protect them from being forced into making false confessions,” he said.
Clarifying the facts and providing information to the victimized will make it easier for them to file civil compensation suits, he added.
Sawanobori said such measures can actually be taken under the current Juvenile Law, because the trial procedures are at the judge’s discretion, although the new legislation may be warranted if the current discussions determine it is necessary to spell out what steps can be taken.
But Sawanobori repeated that the proposed bill stemmed from discussions seeking to clarify the fact-finding procedures in crimes and was not a countermeasure to heinous crimes.
“Revising the law to impose stricter penalties on young offenders is easy, but it would not work as a countermeasure for felonies,” Sawanobori said.
Last week, a Liberal Democratic Party panel proposed revising the Juvenile Law to increase the minimum prison time for youth found guilty of crimes that would merit the death penalty if committed by adults.
The panel, from the LDP’s judicial affairs division, also suggested revising the law to hold juveniles criminally liable from age 14, lowering the age by two years from the current law.
The panel recommended a system in which youths who commit crimes such as murder, robbery and rape be subject in principle to the criminal proceedings now applied to adults, and not at the discretion of family court judges, as is current practice.
Because the legislature is set to be dissolved early next month, the current bill submitted by the government is destined to be scrapped in the current Diet session.
The Lower House Judicial Council pledged Tuesday that it will continue deliberations on the revision and noted it is important to maintain the principle that the Juvenile Law aims to re-educate troubled youth.
Hiroko Goto, an associate professor of law at Fuji College, criticized legislators for merely focusing on youth crimes without directly addressing the root causes of juvenile delinquency.
“The Juvenile Law begins to play its role once crimes are committed. What really needs to be done is to keep youth from committing crimes in the first place,” said Goto, who also serves as a probation officer.
What should be on the agenda for lawmakers is establishing a system for giving redress to people victimized by crimes, who, under the current system, are deprived of the right to know the details of the crimes, Goto said.
In addition, rehabilitation programs for troubled youth should also be reviewed and improved, she said.
“The important thing about the Juvenile Law is to re-educate delinquents to get them back on the right track and prevent them from repeating crimes,” Goto said. “Politicians should be using their time and budget to a certain extent to investigate what is happening to our teenagers.
“If politicians are really thinking about the future of this society and are taking the matter seriously, they should turn to young people and try to understand what compels some kids to commit crimes.”