The Juvenile Law has been under constant review since the late 1990s, leading to tougher penalties and lower ages for culpability as minors continued to commit serious crimes.
Lawmakers introduced another set of amendments in February, including one to lengthen the maximum prison term — to 20 years versus 15 years now — for a minor who commits a serious crime before the age of 18.
Indefinite terms for a minor who is under 20 at the time of a court ruling would be increased to up to 15 years under the amended law, instead of the 10 years at present.
The changes, expected to be approved during the current Diet session, were proposed in the wake of the fatal beating of a 15-year-old teenager with a hammer and a bat by another youth, then 17, in a dispute over a girl in Tondabayashi, Osaka Prefecture, in June 2009.
The 17-year-old boy was given an indefinite prison term by the Osaka District Court of between five and 10 years as demanded by the prosecution, but the killing was so gruesome that one of the judges urged that “appropriate revisions” be made to the Juvenile Law to stiffen punishment.
While the proposed changes are aimed at taking into account the feelings of the victims’ families, who generally want tougher punishment, critics have expressed doubt about the need to do so when juvenile crime is on the decline and efforts are being stepped up to provide support for rehabilitating juvenile offenders.
Calls for more severe punishments were noticeable in January last year at a subcommittee meeting of the Legislative Council, which advises the justice minister.
“The punishments we now have available don’t match (the severity of) crimes committed,” a member of a crime victims’ group told the council. A Penal Code scholar said, “Given the maximum jail term for adults has been increased, penalties for juveniles should be set accordingly.”
But the subcommittee did hear a dissenting view. Noting that the number of violent crimes committed by minors is decreasing, a lawyer said there is “no need to toughen punishment in haste.”
Following the 2005 implementation of the revised Penal Code, the maximum prison term for adults was raised to 20 years for a single offense and to 30 years for multiple offenses. This drew attention to the widening incarceration gap between adults and juveniles.
“So far, punishments (for juveniles) have been too light,” said Ruriko Take, a representative of a families’ advocacy group. “We are just making the punishments more appropriate.”
Opponents of the revision say data show that juvenile crimes are on the decline and note that one of the goals of the Juvenile Law is to rehabilitate the offenders. Postwar data show that the number of juveniles arrested for alleged murders peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, ranging from 200 to 400 per year. The number dropped below 100 in 1975 and to 47 in 2012.
Toshio Sawanobori, a scholar of juvenile law and professor emeritus at Kokugaikuin University, criticized the move to revise the legislation, saying it is “equal to abandoning the spirit of the Juvenile Law.” Specifically, Sawanobori took issue with raising the upper limit of an indefinite sentence to 15 years from 10.
“In some cases, offenders may not be able to finish serving time while they are still in their 20s, when it’s relatively easy to adapt to society,” he said. “We shouldn’t deny them the opportunity to rehabilitate in society by confining them to institutions.”
A Justice Ministry official said the changes “only increase options in sentencing and will not necessarily lead to the toughening of penalties.”
Manabu Sunose, a lawyer versed in juvenile cases, disagreed.
“Especially in trials involving lay judges, judges chosen from among the public will likely opt for heavier punishment,” he said.
While moves are being made to stiffen criminal penalties, efforts to support the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders are also on the rise.
In awarding contracts for building renovation and other work, the Justice Ministry is giving preferential treatment to companies that offer temporary jobs to juveniles on probation or hire those who have completed their prison terms. Advocates are hoping other ministries will follow suit.
Tetsuya Fujimoto, a professor emeritus at Chuo University, said, “Japan’s criminal justice system used to be focused exclusively on punishments but it has changed a lot in the last few years.”
Fujimoto is concerned that the Juvenile Law’s revisions would turn public sentiment in favor of tougher penalties and stall momentum for reintegrating offenders into society.