Will tougher approach reduce crime?

The government has submitted a bill to revise the Juvenile Law with the aim of meting out stricter punishment to minors who commit crimes. The call for more severe punishment comes from victims and the bereaved families of victims of crimes committed by minors.

Supporters of the revision insist that the bill adjusts criminal punishment for minors in the right direction. The Diet should carefully discuss the revision, as the purpose of the Juvenile Law is to protect and rehabilitate minors who have committed crimes. They should scrutinize whether the revision bill lives up to the spirit of the law and whether it would help reduce juvenile crime.

The Juvenile Law sets down procedures for family courts and treatment or punishment for juvenile offenders. There have been moves to toughen up the law since 2001. That year, the minimum age at which criminal punishment could be meted out was lowered from 16 to 14. In 2007, the minimum age for sending juveniles to reformatories was lowered from 14 to 12.

For crimes that normally result in life imprisonment for adults, a prison term of 10 to 15 years is currently given to juveniles who were under 18 at the time of the crime. Under the revision, the upper limit for imprisonment would be raised to 20 years. Depending on the type of crime, the law currently provides for shorter or longer indefinite imprisonments for defendants who are under 20 at the time of the ruling. The upper limit for a shorter indefinite imprisonment is set at five years and that for a longer indefinite prison term is set at 10 years. Under the revision, the upper limit would be raised to 10 years and 15 years, respectively.

In addition, currently public prosecutors and court-appointed defense lawyers can attend family court proceedings for serious crimes such as murder and burglary, but under the revision the scope will be expanded to include lesser offenses such as theft, and battery and assault.

Some lawyers and other people involved in the rehabilitation of minors have voiced concern that the court presence of prosecutors in more minor cases may intimidate juvenile defendants and make them more reluctant to speak the truth.

Government officials and Diet members should give due consideration to this concern. They should also consider whether lengthening prison terms for minors will help prevent recidivism and whether longer sentences will make it more difficult for juvenile offenders to successfully reintegrate into society once they have served their sentences.

Government officials are mistaken if they think that merely making punishment more severe will help reduce juvenile crime. Research shows that factors such as poverty, family environment and being bullied lead some minors to commit crime. The government should consider ways to reduce incidents of juvenile crime from a more holistic viewpoint.