Diet lowers incarceration age to ‘about 12′

by Masami Ito

The Diet enacted a package of new juvenile crime laws on Friday that lowers the minimum age at which a child can be sent to a reformatory to “about 12.”

According to Justice Minister Jinen Nagase, the ambiguous phrase “about 12″ means that it will even be possible for a child of 11 to be sent to a reformatory.

The new legislation, which will take effect within six months, also allows police to conduct searches and seizures in the course of investigating juvenile crimes. Before the revision, police were only allowed to question delinquents.

Ikuzo Maeno, a professor of criminology at Osaka University of Economics and Law, called the changes a “backward step.”

“Up until now, the Juvenile Law was (to help) delinquents through public support and education,” said Maeno, who specializes in Juvenile Law. “But (the revisions) will degrade the public support system and take us in the direction of harsher punishment.”

The law originally had set 14 as the minimum age for incarceration in a reformatory. Children under 14 were sent to the facilities to help them become more independent.

“Reformatories are places where (delinquents) do drills,” Maeno said. “On the other hand, facilities fostering independence in children are substitute family homes, where children have another chance at growing up.”

The government initially submitted a bill in 2005 that scrapped the minimum age altogether. Opposition parties and legal experts strongly opposed it, so the ruling bloc of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito changed the age to “about 12.”

“These (children) are still growing,” Maeno said. The system “should be flexible and supportive, and put into practice while it is still effective on delinquents.”

Yuri Kawamura, a lawyer who handles juvenile crime cases, said severe punishment does not prevent juvenile crime.

Many of these kids “are children whose human rights have been violated during their growing period and are sending out SOS signals from their wounded souls,” Kawamura said. “The crime itself is an SOS and it’s not something that a minor can stop at will.”

According to the National Police Agency, 123,715 minors aged 14 and older were arrested in 2005, down 8.3 percent from the previous year. During the five-year period to 2005, the figure fluctuated between 123,000 and 144,000.

Kawamura said one major reason the government was attempting to increase legal penalties was due to public pressure created by excessive media coverage of heinous crimes committed by minors, citing one case in 2004 when a girl was murdered by her elementary school classmate in Nagasaki Prefecture.

“Bizarre murders occur sometimes in any age and civilization,” Kawamura said.

But Ruriko Take, who heads the Osaka-based Association for Victims of Juvenile Crimes, said the legal changes were a matter of course.

“There were a lot of holes (in the Juvenile Law). I’m glad that, little by little, these holes are being filled,” she said.

Take’s 16-year-old son was beaten to death by a high school freshman in 1996. The attacker was sent to a juvenile reformatory but was released only after 10 months, she said.

Take said her group did not want harsher penalties but a proper investigation and a sentence that matched the crime.

The courts and police “focus on the future of the delinquent, on how (the child) can return to society instead of putting weight on the finding of the facts of the crime and ensuring (the perpetrator) faces the crime,” Take said.

The boy who killed Take went to family court, which protects the identity of the minor and prohibits the victim or the victim’s family from being present.

Because Take was not given any information about the investigation, she filed a civil lawsuit in the Osaka District Court, where she was finally able to face her son’s murderer for the first time.

The court ruled in her favor in 2002, stating that the teen had “unilaterally assaulted the unresisting victim.” The teen pleaded that the two boys had been fighting.

“To this day, neither the attacker nor his family have apologized,” Take said. “The only emotion I have is that I can never forgive him, but for the sake of society, I hope he never commits a crime again.”