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Opinion divided on life term without parole

by Daisuke Sato

Last In A Series

A 44-year-old man serving a life sentence in a prison in the Chugoku region believes that continuing to live a respectable life is the only atonement he can make for the families of the two people he killed.

The inmate, who has now served 15 years, has been behaving well and prison guards often describe him as an “exemplary” prisoner.

He was initially sentenced to death by a district court. However, a high court determined that there was a possibility he could be rehabilitated and reduced the punishment to a life term. This sentence was later finalized.

“The death penalty may have been upheld” if his trials had been conducted today because sentencing has gotten tougher, the inmate said in an interview in the prison’s visiting room.

Technically, inmates serving life terms can be released on parole if they serve 10 years, demonstrate signs of reform and meet other requirements. The reality, though, is that the period such inmates are actually serving has been getting longer, recently reaching an average of about 30 years, according to data released by the Justice Ministry.

Even so, the Chugoku inmate is happy just for the opportunity to atone.

“I’m grateful I escaped from being hanged and was given a chance to live and pay for my crime,” he said. “Getting parole is not something I should think about at the moment.”

Each year, he has been sending whatever money he earned from working in prison to his victims’ families.

He said he thinks that even if he has to spend the rest of his life in prison, it is his responsibility to do so in reflection.

Though he is repentant and an “exemplary” prisoner, it can be argued that his punishment has been significantly reduced under a system where the second-harshest sentence a court can hand down is life imprisonment with parole.

Amid criticism that the gap in severity between that and hanging is too enormous, legal experts are increasingly calling for a new sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole.

Last August, a committee formed by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations to study the possibility of abolishing the death penalty passed a resolution calling on the government to replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without parole.

It was the first time that an internal body of the lawyer federation has ever asked for the introduction of this kind of sentence. The attorneys apparently hope that with life imprisonment without parole in place, public support for capital punishment will weaken.

Some members of the federation have opposed the introduction of a life term without parole, arguing it would strip prisoners of any chance of returning to society.

Osamu Kamo, the chairman of the committee, disagrees.

“Discussions on the issue of life imprisonment without parole can’t be avoided if you really want to abolish capital punishment,” Kamo said. “The federation needs to lay out a clear position on the issue.”

Inmates on death row appear divided on whether life imprisonment without parole should be introduced.

Of 78 respondents to a survey of condemned prisoners conducted last year by Social Democratic Party leader Mizuho Fukushima, 37 said they would favor such a penalty structure, while 24 said they are against it or are not sure.

Yukio Kaneiwa, on death row for killing two people, said he supports the idea because then he wouldn’t have to worry every morning whether this is the day he will finally encounter the hangman’s noose.

Keizo Okamoto, another death-row inmate who also killed two people, said he opposes the introduction.

“I think (a life term without parole) is even crueler than the death penalty. For what purpose should we continue to live?” he wrote in reply to the survey last fall.

Eiichi Shimoura, who murdered three people, answered, “I doubt the public would accept the abolishment of capital punishment unless a new penalty of a life sentence without parole is established.”