With only a year left before the public starts taking part in criminal trials as lay judges, Diet members from the ruling and opposition camps formed a new group Thursday whose aim is to get life sentences without parole into the penal code.
The group, made up of lawmakers for and against the death penalty, believes the gap between capital punishment and the current version of the life sentence, which includes parole, is too wide.
Led by former Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Kato of the Liberal Democratic Party, the group plans to meet regularly so it can submit a bill to revise the law in time for the start of the “saiban-in” (lay judge) system next May.
A revision will give judges a new sentencing option for the most serious crimes, the group said.
“When the public starts taking part as lay judges, they will not only decide whether the accused is guilty or not, but they will also decide the penalty. And there will be cases where they have to make grave decisions,” said Kato, who is a staunch opponent of capital punishment.
“Perhaps judges who are professionals might be prepared to do so because it is part of their mission, but we don’t know if the public is ready for that,” Kato said.
Starting May 21, 2009, six randomly chosen citizens will sit with three professional judges to try serious crimes at the district court level. The cases they try will include murder, arson and rape resulting in death — all crimes that can result in capital punishment.
Under the penal code, however, the second-harshest punishment after death is life in prison with parole. This means those sentenced to life can possibly be freed in 10 years.
In practice, convicts are usually released after 20 years, with each decision made on a case-by-case basis.
Katsuei Hirasawa, a member who supports the death penalty, said he sees a problem in the fact that the clause on short releases hasn’t been revised since 1907.
“Society and crimes have changed so much since then, but we’re still dragging this along,” the LDP politician said. “Opinions on the death penalty do vary, but I believe many (lawmakers) agree that the gap (between death and life with parole) is too big.”
Other members of the group include former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and Democratic Party of Japan Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama, who may likely get other politicians to join.
Mori and Hatoyama both said that while they do not intend to discuss the abolishment of the death penalty, they believe it is important to look into the gap between the penalties if average citizens are about to be de facto jurors.
Kato is also a member of a separate nonpartisan group that wants to abolish capital punishment. The group, led by Shizuka Kamei of Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party), has been working on a separate bill that would establish life without parole as an intermediary step toward abolishing the death penalty.
Kato said many of the people who were reluctant to join the force against capital punishment said they would support life sentences without parole, and that was the reason he established the new group, which Kamei also joined.
Opinion polls show that about 80 percent of the public supports the death penalty.