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Should young criminals face harsher penalties?

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet approved a bill this month to bolster punishments issued under the juvenile law. This is partly in response to growing calls by people victimized by juvenile offenders to reduce their apparent impunity.

Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki defended the move as an appropriate step to “secure public trust in (the handling) of juvenile trials and to stave off youth recidivism.”

While the proposed revisions have their share of supporters, especially among those who lost loved ones to young criminals, they have drawn fierce criticism from human rights advocates and lawyers.

Such parties acknowledge that the victims’ next of kin may want vengeance, but they caution that stronger punishments may reflect a growing penchant for zero tolerance that brands kids who mess up as failures, marginalizing them forever.

Let’s take a closer look at the government’s plan to toughen the juvenile law.

What are the major changes that would take place?

The revision would bring three major changes.

The first would subject juvenile offenders to longer jail terms. Currently, juveniles who commit crimes that could draw a life sentence if they were adults face a maximum term of 15 years.

With a less serious offense, they would face a maximum of 10 years behind bars. The revision would extend these two upper limits to 20 years and 15 years, respectively.

The second change would allow prosecutors to participate in a wider range of juvenile trials. Unlike criminal trials for adults, prosecutors are not permitted to be present in juvenile proceedings unless there are extremely serious crimes involved, including murder, armed robbery and arson.

Under the government revision, prosecutors would be able to hear cases involving less-severe offenses, including theft, assault, fraud and sexual harassment, which constitute about 80 percent of all juvenile crimes.

The third change would allow state-assigned lawyers to attend more juvenile trials to the same extent that it does prosecutors.

How do critics view the proposed changes in the law?

They welcome the greater involvement of lawyers, believing this will help reduce the psychological pressure on minors and help them better explain themselves.

But they also caution that youths may still not get the legal assistance they need, noting family courts get the final say on whether a case merits lawyers, based on severity.

The bigger problems, critics say, will stem from the greater influence of the prosecutors and from the prolonged prison terms.

The presence of prosecutors, whose job is to interrogate defendants to get them convicted, is fundamentally at odds with the original concept of juvenile trials, which the law stipulates should be conducted in an “amicable” manner, the critics point out.

Unlike adult trials, the purpose of juvenile trials is not to determine guilt, but to consider why youths go astray and how to rehabilitate them.

But still, “lots of kids I’ve taken care of are extremely nervous during trials, even without prosecutors,” said lawyer Kazuko Sunami, who specializes in juvenile cases. “I don’t know how much harder the situation will become for the kids if prosecutors are allowed to step in more,” she added.

Subjecting kids to longer prison terms will only make it more difficult for them to re-enter society upon release, and heighten the risk of recidivism, according to Osamu Niikura, a professor at the law school of Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo.

“(Prolonging jail terms) is a virtual message against the kids that society doesn’t need them anymore,” he said.

What are the latest statistics pertaining to juvenile crimes?

The number of apprehended juvenile offenders has declined over the past two decades, reaching 101,098 in 2012, the lowest since 1946. The number had been rising since the end of World War II and peaked in 1983 at 317,438.

Of the roughly 120,000 juvenile offenses recognized by prosecutors in 2012, theft accounted for 35.9 percent, followed by vehicular manslaughter at 18.2 percent and traffic violations at 17.3 percent.

What changes has the juvenile law undergone?

The juvenile law was enacted in 1948 with the aim of “rectifying the personality of juveniles (who have) a tendency toward delinquency” and “adjusting their environment” for the sake of their “sound development.”

Despite its original emphasis on protecting troubled kids and believing in their potential for change, the law has of late been used in more harsher terms to address some of the more heinous crimes committed by minors.

The law’s first major overhaul occurred in 2000, when teens over age 14 were made eligible to face punishment for crimes.

Before then, only youths over age 16 were subject to such punishment.

The next revision took place in 2007, when the age limit for kids who could be sent to juvenile training centers was lowered from 14 to “roughly 12.”

Before these changes to the law were conducted, a number of high-profile crimes had drawn attention to juveniles, including the 1997 serial killings by a 14-year-old schoolboy in Kobe, who, apparently driven by an obsession with murder, bludgeoned one child to death and strangled another, whose decapitated head he placed on the gate of his school.

The boy was later diagnosed with a “conduct disorder” and placed in a medical facility and juvenile training center. He has since re-entered society.

In 2004, an 11-year-old girl in Nagasaki used a utility knife to fatally stab a classmate.

A Nagasaki family court decided the girl was suffering from extreme mental instability but stopped short of concluding she was actually sick. The girl was later sent to a local training school for rehabilitation.

Why is the law being strengthened anew?

The revisions being proposed this time are apparently being driven by a wave of public sympathy for crime victims, who, according to lawyer Sunami, have become increasingly vocal about their frustration with what they see as excessive leniency in the juvenile law.

Partly encouraged by this movement, she noted, Japan has experienced a groundswell of public anger with and intolerance for wrongdoers in the past several years, juvenile or not, and growing calls for retaliation.

Tadaari Katayama, who himself lost his 8-year-old son to a car accident in 1997 and now heads a group called Victim and Law, says boosting the punishment of young offenders will by no means ever help heal the pain of those victimized.

“Just because kids spend longer years behind bars doesn’t mean they will correct themselves in a way we (victims) hope they would, or make a heartfelt apology,” he said. “The kids who went astray are in one way or another victims themselves. Lots of them have a history of being abused or sexually molested at home. We adults are sometimes at fault for how they ended up.”

What implications does the bill for revising the juvenile law have for society?

Lawyer Momoko Sakai, who also handles juvenile cases, considers the government’s proposed revisions a harbinger of a more unforgiving society in which kids who misbehave are purged, denied a chance to start afresh, and are only expected to atone for past mistakes.

With society now scrambling to part ways with “yutori kyoiku” (relaxed education), “I have this awful feeling that the intended revision signals society’s growing fondness for elitism” and its eagerness to “welcome only kids who won’t mess up,” she said.

“But kids are bound to mess up. It’s the adults’ responsibility to patiently listen to them. Punishment does make them realize they did something wrong. They will just repeat their wrongs unless they’re truly healed.”

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp