A bill to revise the Juvenile Law, which passed the Lower House with the backing of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, is now in the Upper House. The bill is designed to provide harsher treatment of juvenile offenders. Lawmakers must question whether such a move will really help to prevent juvenile crimes and rehabilitate juvenile offenders.
The bill calls for lowering the youngest age at which juvenile offenders can be sent to juvenile reformatories from 14 to around 12. Juvenile offenders under the age of 14 cannot be held criminally responsible, but if the bill becomes law, fifth and sixth graders could be sent to reformatories.
The bill was first introduced in 2005 after a 12-year-old boy killed a boy in 2003 and an 11-year-old girl killed a female classmate in 2004, both in Nagasaki Prefecture. But the bill was scrapped when the Lower House was dissolved in 2005 during a political confrontation over postal service privatization bills. It was re-introduced to the Diet in 2006.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says the new provision for lowering the age floor for sending juvenile offenders to reformatories is unavoidable in view of the large number of serious crimes by juveniles and the feelings of crime victims and their families. But it is highly questionable that sending elementary school children to reformatories will have a desirable educational effect on them.
Due consideration should be given to sending them to children’s self-reliance support facilities or letting them live with their families under the watch of voluntary rehabilitation workers. Discipline is the main pillar of reformatory life while self-reliance support facilities provide a family-like atmosphere.
Originally, the bill called for scrapping the minimum age limit for sending juvenile offenders to reformatories. Since Justice Minister Jinen Nagase did not rule out the possibility that even a 5-year-old could be sent to a reformatory, the ruling coalition revised the bill to set the minimum age limit at around 12. Discussions in the Lower House centered on the age limit provision and failed to sufficiently examine other important provisions contained in the bill.
The bill accords to police officers the right to investigate juveniles under the age of 14 on a voluntary basis if it is reasonably suspected from objective circumstances that they have committed offenses. If police obtain permission from the court, they can search the homes of such juveniles and confiscate evidence. Although police cannot arrest such juveniles, they can question them. Since Lower House discussions barely touched on this clause, Upper House lawmakers must seriously examine the clause. They must pay special attention to the fact that children are susceptible to leading questions posed by adults and may confess to crimes they have not committed. Some measures should be considered to maintain the transparency of questioning by investigators, including visual recording of questioning and allowing lawyers to be in presence during questioning.
The bill originally called for establishing the right of police to question juveniles who have not yet committed crimes but are likely to commit crimes. But this provision was dropped in the course of discussions in the Lower House because lawmakers, including those from the ruling coalition, expressed the fear that it could lead to virtually any child being put under police surveillance. Dropping this right from the bill does not prevent police from watching juveniles who are likely to commit crimes as they have been doing so far.
The bill also includes a provision under which lawyers appointed by a family court and hired with public money will be provided to juveniles who have committed serious crimes, such as murder, and been sent to diagnostic facilities for juveniles. The provision is good news for juveniles and their parents who cannot afford to hire lawyers.
Under the bill, if juvenile offenders on probation repeatedly fail to adhere to promises made to probation officers or voluntary rehabilitation workers, and if it becomes impossible for the officers or workers to contact the juveniles, a family court can decide whether to send them to reformatories. But this provision, which contains a threat of sending juvenile offenders on probation to reformatories, carries the danger of making it difficult to establish trustful relations with probation officers or voluntary rehabilitation workers. Before applying a threat, the government should do its best to create a strong network of probation officers and voluntary rehabilitation workers. Increasing their numbers will be important.
In discussing the bill, lawmakers must keep in mind the basics — that the Juvenile Law’s purpose is to assist in the healthy development of children and to rehabilitate juvenile offenders.