A Lower House plenary session passed controversial legislation Tuesday to amend the Juvenile Law to impose harsher penalties on young offenders and lower the age of criminal liability.

The bill was supported by the tripartite ruling coalition as well as opposition members from the Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Party. It will now be sent to the House of Councilors.

Other opposition forces, including the Japanese Communist Party and Social Democratic Party, opposed the legislation, saying the revision will undermine the spirit of the Juvenile Law, implemented in 1956, which attaches greater importance to protecting and rehabilitating juvenile offenders than punishing them.

The DPJ, meanwhile, was not united in its support of the bill. Some party members boycotted the day’s session, expressing concern that the legislation, which imposes severer punishment, will not lead to a fall in juvenile crimes, as seen in Germany. They also questioned the need for harsher penalties against juveniles only.

Some legislators who support the bill called for even stiffer measures. They approved the bill, however, for the sake of early enactment to address public concerns over the issue. Others emphasized the need for the state to make improving the rights of crime victims its top priority.

To meet widespread public concern after a recent spate of heinous crimes committed by minors, the revised legislation lowers the age of criminal liability from the current 16 to 14, in accordance with the criminal code.

The legislation also stipulates that family courts would send serious juvenile offenders above the age of 16 to prosecutors to stand trial as adults.

Currently, this step is left to the discretion of family court judges, who deal with all juvenile cases. The judges, however, rarely resort to such measures, preferring to send offenders to reformatories or place them under probation.

According to opponents of the revision, trying people aged 14 or 15 and possibly sentencing them to imprisonment would run counter to the Constitution by depriving them of the right to receive compulsory education.

And if prosecutors are, in principle, to receive serious juvenile offenders above the age of 16 from family courts, this will effectively weaken the family court system as judges would be less inclined to prescribe rehabilitation measures for them, the opponents said.

To meet growing criticism over the way family courts handle juvenile criminal cases — one judge per case without the presence of prosecutors and other outsiders — the legislation also calls for prosecutors to be involved in trials if deemed necessary.

Host-nation support

The House of Representatives began deliberations Tuesday on provisions proposed by the ruling camp to the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement that would curtail Tokyo’s host-nation support for U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan by some 3 billion yen annually.

The budget review, which was held before the current five-year agreement expires in March, was proposed by Tokyo amid the nation’s snowballing fiscal debt.

The reduced figure was agreed upon by Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and U.S. President Bill Clinton when the two met on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit in Okinawa in July.

Specifically, the budget cut will reduce the amount Japan shoulders in terms of the public utilities costs of the residences of U.S. service members, part of which will be in turn covered by the U.S. government.

A Lower House special committee on electoral reform and political ethics meanwhile began deliberations on bills to ban politicians from receiving financial benefits in return for providing political favors.

The ruling camp-proposed bill requires Diet members, mayors, governors, state-paid secretaries of lawmakers or members of local legislatures to serve a maximum three-year prison term should they receive profits in reward for exercising their political influence upon civil servants.

A counterproposal submitted by the opposition camp would subject private secretaries of lawmakers to the penalty as well.

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