In a decisive move toward the first revisions to the Juvenile Law in 50 years, a Justice Ministry panel on Friday approved proposals to revamp juvenile hearing procedures.
One of the ideas endorsed by the Juvenile Law Committee, a subgroup of an advisory panel to the justice minister, is a controversial proposal to allow prosecutors to attend hearings of youths suspected of committing crimes.
There has been mounting public concern that the current system overly protects the rights of young suspects. Friday’s decisions by the committee will be directly reflected in a bill the ministry plans to submit to the regular Diet session, which starts January 19.
The juvenile hearing procedures — in which family court judges recognize facts related to crimes committed by youths and decide on appropriate rehabilitative measures — came under heavy scrutiny in the wake of a spate of heinous juvenile crimes, including the murder and beheading of 11-year-old Jun Hase by a 14-year-old boy in Kobe in May 1997.
The committee’s agenda, however, does not include the controversial issue of whether to lower the minimum age at which juveniles are held accountable for their crimes, which stands at 16.
The committee approved all of the draft proposals prepared by the ministry, such as voting in favor of major changes like allowing prosecutors into juvenile hearings and increasing the number of family court judges per case from one to three.
The committee also unanimously decided to inform victims of juvenile crimes the results of family court decisions after hearings conclude.
The most controversial point dealt with was when and how prosecutors should be allowed to attend juvenile hearings. Supreme Court officials had argued they want prosecutors present at juvenile hearings to help family court judges rule on complicated cases.
The bar group had long been opposed to allowing prosecutors in, on grounds that it goes against the principle of the Juvenile Law.
The 50-year-old law stresses rehabilitation of troubled youths instead of punishment.
The bar group in July came out with proposals for allowing prosecutors in under certain conditions, but its idea was rejected in Friday’s vote. The committee instead approved the ministry’s plan to give prosecutors access to the hearings in a wide variety of cases.
For example, prosecutors would be allowed in when the youth denies guilt or when the judges consider their participation necessary to uncover motives or relationships with accomplices.
The ministry’s plan would limit prosecutors’ participation in the hearings in cases punishable by at least three years in prison, but virtually all major criminal offenses would be covered.
Prosecutors would also be allowed in when victims of alleged juvenile crimes have died. Judges must consent to their presence unless the request is “clearly unwarranted.”
The committee members also decided to disclose more information to the victims of juvenile crimes.
Family courts would be required to release the names of troubled youths and their guardians, their address and the summary of the family court decisions if the victims or their next-of-kin request the information within three years of the hearing’s conclusion.
The committee also voted in favor of preventing “double jeopardy,” banning prosecutors from trying youths in criminal proceedings once they are acquitted in family courts.
Among other changes approved on Friday:
1) Extending the detention period for youths from the current four weeks to up to 12.
2) Allowing prosecutors to appeal family court decisions.
3) Allowing a retrial for youths when evidence that exonerates youths emerges after rehabilitative measures are completed.
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