While economic recovery may be the focal issue for the June 25 election, Ruriko Take, head of the Association for Victims of Juvenile Crimes citizens group, believes juvenile issues should be given more attention as they concern the people who will lead society in the future.
The spate of heinous crimes committed by teenagers in recent years has triggered calls for the Juvenile Law to be revised to make family court proceedings open, but a bill to revise the controversial law was scrapped after the Diet ran out of time to deliberate it.
Politicians should carefully study the Juvenile Law to understand the plight of juvenile crime victims and their families, who are not allowed to know the identity of the offender or the outcome of the court trial because the assailant is a minor, said Take, 45, whose 16-year-old son Takakazu was killed by another 16-year-old in 1996.
“Before my son was killed, I took it for granted that anyone who committed murder would be punished, but minors don’t receive any punishment,” she said. “They’re not even (criminally) tried. But I doubt most lawmakers know that.
“We’re not asking for the introduction of harsher penalties, but at least victims and offenders should be treated equally,” Take added.
The Juvenile Law, established in 1949, aims to rehabilitate minors who have committed a crime. Their cases are heard in family courts, but the names and addresses of the accused are withheld, the hearings are closed to the public and they are conducted without prosecutors.
Delinquents between the ages of 14 and 19 are not punished unless the family court decides to send them to a criminal court. However, such cases are rare, Take said.
Unless the juvenile offenders are tried as criminals, the only way victims’ families can learn the outcome of the family court proceedings is by filing a civil suit against the offenders at their own expense.
Take and three other families formed the victims association in Osaka in December 1997 to foster a movement to revise the Juvenile Law to make minors who commit serious crimes subject to the same criminal process as adult offenders and to make the court hearings open to the public. Currently, the families of 30 people killed by minors participate in the group by exchanging information, according to Take.
“We’re not against the law itself, but it excessively disregards victims, while delinquents who kill are fully protected,” she said. “It’s just not fair.”
Take’s son died 12 days after he sustained serious head injuries inflicted by another youth who became angry with her son at their high school festival.
Take and her husband found out what had happened from their son’s friends, who witnessed the attack, but the police told the couple nothing, saying the attacker was a juvenile and that his right to privacy is protected by law, she said.
The pair later learned from their son’s teacher that the family court sent the other teen to a juvenile correction center. Take and her family never received an apology from the offender or his family.
Other members of the association have similar tales to tell, she said.
“If we read the Juvenile Law closely, it states that its aim is not only to protect youth but to educate them healthily and sensibly,” said Take. “But I think there is too much focus on protection.
“If authorities really want to get the kids back on the right track, they must have the children face up to their crimes and make them realize that they took the life of someone who was supposed to live. There cannot be true rehabilitation without reflection from their hearts.”
Take suggested that juvenile cases resulting in the death of a person be treated differently from other offenses committed by minors.
Despite the scrapping of the Juvenile Law revision bill in the last Diet session, the Lower House Judicial Committee pledged to continue to debate the issue, pointing out that it is important to maintain the principle that the law aims to re-educate troubled youngsters.
“Politicians’ discussions tend to focus on whether to revise the Juvenile Law or not, but it’s not just a matter of yes or no,” said Take. “They need to be aware of the current situation first, and then discuss what needs to be done to improve it. If nothing is done now, things will get worse.”