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In a decisive step toward revamping the Juvenile Law, Justice Minister Kokichi Shimoinaba asked an advisory panel Thursday to debate how the law should be changed to improve the fact-finding procedures of the juvenile justice system.

The Legislative Council held its general meeting Thursday to start deliberating on the law’s revision in its committee comprising scholars, intellectuals, lawyers and others.

The committee’s deliberation, scheduled to start late this month, will mark the first time that the 49-year-old law undergoes a major review.

Shimoinaba told the meeting that the law’s revamp is “indispensable and urgent,” in light of a recent public controversy over a series of juvenile crime cases in which the law was found inadequate in discovering whether youth suspects really committed the crimes they are accused of.

The minister asked the panel to debate the following five points:
* whether to increase the number of family court judges to handle juvenile crime cases from one per case;* whether to allow prosecutors to participate in juvenile hearings;* whether to extend the maximum detention period for youth suspects from the current 28 days;* whether to give prosecutors rights to appeal family court decisions;* how a youth suspect should be salvaged when evidence that exonerates youths emerges after rehabilitation measures — such as detention in juvenile correction centers or probation — are completed.

The council’s Juvenile Law Committee, made up of up to 20 members with voting rights and up to 10 without such rights, will start deliberating on the points above late this month, ministry officials said. Shimoinaba requested the council to submit recommendations by November.

The ministry plans to draw up a bill based on the council’s conclusion and submit the bill in the next regular Diet session, which starts in January.

The juvenile justice system came under heavy scrutiny following a series of murders and assaults on teenagers by a 14-year-old boy in Kobe last year. Family members of the victims in the attacks voiced criticism against the juvenile hearings, saying that the current system protects only the accused minors.

Although not specified in the council’s agenda, the ministry officials said the discussions are likely to include how the victims’ viewpoint can be reflected in the family court proceedings, such as by allowing the presence of juvenile crime victims in the hearings.

The ministry had been discussing the Juvenile Law revisions with the Supreme Court and the Japan Federation of Bar Associations after a 1993 case involving seven teenage suspects in Yamagata Prefecture.

Family court rulings and a subsequent high court ruling differed on whether the suspects were involved in the alleged fatal bullying of a schoolmate. The courts’ conflicting judgments baffled the public and made court officials nervous about their ability to rule.

The top court proposed in January allowing prosecutors to participate in hearings when facts in connection with the crimes are fiercely debated, such as when juvenile suspects deny involvement in the crimes they are accused of committing.

The court officials also proposed increasing the number of family court judges from the current one to three on a case-by-case basis.

The three-party discussion nearly deadlocked, due in part to the bar federation’s opposition to allowing prosecutors’ presence in the hearings.

But the federation was forced to change its stance as pressures from the public and members of the Liberal Democratic Party have mounted since the Kobe slayings.

As a counterproposal to calls from judicial authorities, the bar federation has moved to give youth suspects the option to have prosecutors attend their hearings under certain conditions.

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