Minors are usually tried in family courts behind closed doors, but in an effort to give the public a better understanding of how these cases are handled, the Tokyo Family Court this week showcased a mock juvenile trial.
The event was part of Law Day, an annual event that begins Oct. 1 and actually lasts a week, during which the legal profession holds numerous demonstrations of how the system works.
Criminal trials are always open to the public, but juvenile court sessions for 14- to 19-years-old are kept confidential to protect the privacy of the minors and their parents. The theory goes that behind closed doors, the participants can hold frank discussions and reach a resolution that best serves the minor, especially in keeping them from getting into further trouble.
Family courts also handle divorce, child custody and inheritance cases, which likewise are not open to the public to maintain privacy.
Tuesday’s mock trial was based on a fictional case of a 17-year-old night school student under arrest for allegedly shoplifting ¥500 worth of food and beverages from a convenience store. In this scenario, the crime was committed while he was still under probation for committing his first shoplifting offense six months earlier.
More than 30 percent of all juvenile offenses involve shoplifting; it is the top reason minors end up in juvenile court.
Usually, a case is brought before a juvenile court by police or a prosecutor. Once the court receives the minor’s files on the alleged crime, a specialist in juvenile cases works with the judge to conduct a thorough investigation, including interviews with parents, teachers and coworkers.
In some cases, such as the teen in the mock trial, the minor is in effect detained in a juvenile classification office during this time.
When the court finds it necessary to hold a session, the minor and parents are summoned. A lawyer usually attends the proceedings, which are handled by the judge in the presence of the investigator and a court clerk.
At the mock trial, the court found that the teen, who admitted to his offense, was having difficulties with his mother and stepfather and had tried several times to run away from home. The shoplifting was committed during his latest attempt.
The judge told him that because he is a repeat offender, the court may have to send him to a reformatory, where minors deemed to have the potential of committing further wrongdoings are sent for correction. But after listening to the teen and his parents, the judge said he would give him a three-month test probation before handing down a final decision.
Minors given such probation usually go through different programs, including attending a group camp with their parents and taking part in a gathering to listen to the experiences of shoplifting victims.
Events were telescoped for the mock trial, and the investigator reported to the judge that during the three months, she felt that the teen had exhibited sincere regret for his offense and there were signs of positive change in the relationship between him and his parents.
In the end, at the second and final hearing, the court decided it was in the teen’s best interest that he be placed on probation to give him and his parents another chance.
Supreme Court statistics show that family courts handled 194,650 juvenile cases last year. Among them, 63,941, or 32.8 percent, were for alleged theft; 39,963, or 20.5 percent, for minor traffic violations; and 32,380, or 16.8 percent, were for deaths or injuries involving motor vehicles.
Only 0.6 percent were for serious crimes, it said.
When a minor is accused of a serious crime, the family court can send him or her to the district public prosecutor’s office to be charged and tried as an adult. In those cases, the trial is open to the public.
Children under 14 cannot be charged with violating the Penal Code. However, depending on the seriousness of the offense, a juvenile court can handle it as a special case and decide what sort of correction the child should go through.
According to the National Police Agency, the total number of times that minors between 14 and 19 were arrested or placed in protective custody has been on a steady decline in the past decade, dropping from 157,385 in 1998 to 103,224 in 2007.
Arrests of minors for heinous crimes, including murder, robbery, arson and rape, have also dropped, from 2,197 in 1998 to 1,042 in 2007, NPA statistics show.
Since 1960, Oct. 1 has officially been designated by the government as Law Day, which commemorates the day the Jury Law went into effect in 1928. Japan had the jury system for 15 years before it was halted in 1943 during World War II. In 1960, the Cabinet designated that the week be used to promote the importance of the law, although Oct. 1 is not recognized as a national holiday.
Some major crimes committed by young people
The debate over whether Japan’s juvenile crime rate is on the rise or decline never seems to end, but one thing is certain — teen crimes are no longer just run-of-the-mill thefts and joyrides. Here are some high-profile cases that have stunned the nation in the past decade:
• April 1999 — An 18-year-old male posing as a plumber broke into an apartment in Hikari, Yamaguchi Prefecture, to fulfill his desire to rape a total stranger. He strangled a young mother and raped her corpse. He also strangled the woman’s baby. A death sentence for the defendant, now 27, is pending before the Supreme Court.
• December 1999 — The 19-year-old leader of a teen gang whose father was a Tochigi Prefectural Police assistant lieutenant conspired with two youths to confine an acquaintance, a young auto factory worker, for two months, forcing him to withdraw and borrow money to pay for their entertainment expenses. When the victim ran out of money, they strangled him and buried his body. After the three were arrested, the Tochigi police drew heavy criticism because they had repeatedly rejected requests from the victim’s parents to investigate his whereabouts. It has never been determined whether the gang leader’s father was involved in the refusals.
• May 2000 — A 17-year-old used a knife to hijack a bus on an expressway in Kyushu after posting his plans on the Internet. Hours later, police stormed the bus while it was parked at a rest area. One police officer was injured by the knife, but all of the passengers emerged from the ordeal unscathed.
• July 2003 — A 12-year-old boy killed a 4-year-old boy in Nagasaki by pushing him off a high-rise parking structure after luring him away from a game arcade and tormenting him physically, including going after his genitals with a pair of scissors. Some media reports said the 12-year-old had been traumatized by his own experiences of sexual molestation.
• June 2004 — A girl in the sixth grade in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, slashed the neck of a female classmate with a box-cutter at their elementary school and watched her bleed to death. She was quoted as telling police she was infuriated by online messages the victim had posted on the Internet.
• May 2007 — A 17-year-old boy in Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, brought his mother’s head to a police station. After the boy fatally stabbed his mother at their home and decapitated her with a saw, he used a bag to carry the head to an Internet cafe and spent the night there, watching DVDs. He appeared at the police station the following morning. His motive remains a mystery.
• September 2007 — A junior high school girl in Kyotanabe, Kyoto Prefecture, killed her father by chopping his neck with a hatchet while he was in bed. The daughter was quoted as telling police the slaying was driven by her hatred toward her father, a Kyoto police officer who was reportedly having an extramarital affair.