Year one of lay judge system: all convicted

by Setsuko Kamiya

The lay judge system that debuted last year on May 21 has had a smooth first year, and a 100 percent conviction rate, thanks largely to the conscientious efforts of the de facto jurors, prosecutors said Thursday.

With more cases on the way, the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office vowed greater efforts to speed up trials and more honing of trial skills.

“So far, the lay judge trials, including the selection process, have gone smoothly overall, with the lay judges actively participating, and their opinions are reflected in the trials,” said Shozo Fujita, director of the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office’s department in charge of the “saibanin” lay judge trials.

“This is, most of all, due to the fact that lay judges and alternates have served earnestly and with sincerity. We want to express our profound appreciation,” he told reporters.

According to the office, as of May 20, 530 defendants had been judged and sentenced by the panels of six lay and three professional judges across the nation since the first lay judge trial under the new system was held last August.

All of the defendants were convicted, but Fujita said this is not surprising, given that in almost all cases the defendants had owned up to the charges.

However, in three cases, the panels of judges determined that although they found the defendants guilty, the evidence was insufficient for the charges demanded by the prosecution.

In these three cases, the defendants were convicted of charges subject to lower punishments than what was initially leveled in indictments.

Fujita said it was still difficult to comment on whether the lay judges were handing down more severe or lighter punishments compared with the previous trial practice, in which only professional trial judges were involved.

But he said prosecutors were interested in the fact that, in cases where defendants were given suspended sentences, more were sent to probation officers compared with when only professional judges tried cases.

According to prosecutors, 57 percent of such defendants were sent to probation under the new system.

A Supreme Court report in April said only 36.6 percent of defendants with suspended sentences received probation when only professional judges tried their cases a year earlier.

“This seems to indicate the lay judges are interested in the correction of the defendants and preventing repeated offenses,” Fujita said.

Under the lay judge system, six citizens randomly chosen among voters and three professional judges sit together to try serious crimes.

The nine judges work together to decide the facts based on evidence and hand down a sentence if they opt for a conviction. The decision is based on a majority vote.