Lay judges get a peek at prison life

Some feel a duty to see where the guilty are sent

by Setsuko Kamiya

Staff Writer

When lay judges hand down a prison term, many focus on the merits of the case itself and not about the life behind bars that awaits the guilty.

One group of citizens who served as lay judges in criminal trials, however, took a tour of Yokohama Prison in late May to get a firsthand look at how the correctional system works.

“When we were deciding on the prison term of the defendant, I thought hard about what was just, but I didn’t know what awaited him when his sentence was finalized,” said Atsutoshi Oda, a company employee in his 40s who helped decide a case at the Tokyo District Court in 2010.

“Our decisions can affect people for the rest of their lives. I wondered if I had the right to hand down a sentence not knowing what life behind bars is like,” he said. Along with other lay and professional judges, Oda sentenced a defendant to 8½ years in prison for burglary resulting in injury.

Oda was among the former lay judges who felt it was their responsibility to find out about where defendants are locked up as a consequence of their decisions. Some even suggested that all lay judges should be shown prisons and given an explanation of the correctional facility before serving on a trial.

The event was organized by the Lay Judge Community Club, which was formed last year by six former lay judges who wanted to share their experiences and concerns with each other and those who might one day serve as lay judges.

The 16 who visited Yokohama Prison, housing some 1,000 adult male inmates, including foreigners, were briefed by a prison official on how the inmates serve their time behind bars.

Some inmates were working at a printing factory, while others were engaged in woodworking or doing laundry. The prison official explained that the work the inmates engage in helps them develop a sense of motivation to work and to obtain necessary skills.

At Yokohama Prison, about 34 percent of the Japanese inmates were convicted of use and possession of narcotics, followed by burglary at around 25 percent, while with foreign inmates it was 30 percent burglary resulting in injury and 24 percent related to narcotics.

But most surprising of all to the participants was the fact that more than half of the Japanese inmates in Yokohama Prison were repeat offenders — 4.6 times on average among the Japanese inmates, and 1.7 times among foreign inmates.

As part of the rehabilitation process, a prison official said inmates undergo various correctional sessions, including learning about the harm of drug abuse and urging sex offenders to reflect on the damage they inflicted on their victims.

But the former lay judges said they weren’t convinced that such sessions actually lowered the recidivism rate. Nor were they satisfied with the explanation given by prison officials for the high return rate of offenders. But seeing the facility with their own eyes, nonetheless, was well worth the visit, they said.

“It’s a problem that half of the inmates end up coming back to prison. It shouldn’t happen. I wonder if prison authorities take this situation seriously. At the same time, I feel that goes for all of us in society,” said Yuki Ichikawa, who served on a murder trial at the Chiba District Court two years ago.

Oda agreed, saying he also felt the rehabilitation programs behind bars need to be improved to reduce the number of repeat offenders.

“The defendant in my case had prior prison records, but from the way he expressed his regret, I had no doubt that he was truly sorry. I just couldn’t understand why he would keep repeating his mistake, but now I’m starting to understand why,” Oda said.

Judicial experts point out that at the time of sentencing, lay judges are more likely than the professionals of the past to urge the defendants to reflect on their crimes and change their ways while in prison.

The lay judges who went on the prison tour said they weren’t sure whether had they had such a glimpse before serving on the bench, they would have meted out the sentences they did. But they agreed it was important to know what it’s like behind bars.

Masayoshi Taguchi, who served on a trial at the Tokyo District Court in 2010, said he feels everyone needs to know what goes on inside the correctional facilities.

“It’s also important that the government provide more information related to the penal system” when citizens are taking part in the decision-making process in criminal trials, he said.

According to the Supreme Court, as of the end of March, more than 29,000 people had served as lay judges, and another 10,000 citizens had sat as alternates across the country. Some 5,000 defendants were tried under the lay judge system during the same period.