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Whenever people with psychological problems are arrested for brutal crimes, public attention focuses on whether they can be held criminally liable.

But experts say the nation’s judicial system often fails to look deep into the minds of these people to assess the background to their actions — a step they say is essential preventive medicine.

While there is widespread criticism that mental patients accused of heinous crimes are let off the hook because of their illness, statistics show a majority of the people arrested who are suspected of having mental problems in fact face prosecution.

According to Justice Ministry figures, 1,997 people suspected of having mental disorders were held by police in 1999, and only 542 were not indicted because of their psychiatric conditions. Most of the rest were tried and punished if found guilty.

It is rare for such suspects to undergo full-scale psychiatric examinations, which can often take months, according to legal experts.

In most cases when psychiatric tests are conducted before suspects are indicted, they are given a summary examination consisting of an interview with a psychiatrist for a few hours. If the accused appear to answer questions properly, they are usually considered of sound mind, according to Justice Ministry officials.

Once prosecutors determine, largely at their discretion, that a suspect can be held criminally responsible, then prosecution will proceed, even if the accused is suspected of being mentally ill.

Once on trial, it is rare for a court to acquit such a defendant because of psychiatric problems. Only 12 people were found not guilty of crimes for such reasons between 1995 to 1999, according to the ministry.

Psychiatrist Shotaro Hanawa, who works at a facility run by Kumamoto Prefecture, has treated a number of mental patients who have committed violent crimes. He said law enforcement authorities and experts should closely examine such people, including their childhood and family backgrounds as well as living environments, to understand what led them to commit their heinous acts. “There will be no real solution unless the causes of the crimes are made clear,” he said.

Many of his patients have grown up in terrible environments, Hanawa said.

“I can’t help but think that they would not have gone as far as committing murder if they had grown up in a better environment,” he said.

Professor Masaaki Noda of Kyoto Women’s University criticized the way criminal suspects undergo psychiatric examinations: Experts are rarely allowed to interview suspects in police custody or in prison.

Mental-health experts also say criminal trial procedures often fail to expose the backgrounds of crimes committed by people with mental disabilities.

“If they are going to send him to prison, they should make him understand that he did something really wrong before doing so,” said lawyer Hiroaki Soejima, who is defending Makoto Yamaguchi, 29, who stands accused of stabbing a female college student to death April 30 on a street in Tokyo’s Asakusa neighborhood.

On the day prosecutors indicted Yamaguchi, Soejima told reporters in Tokyo that his client has a light mental disability that had been officially recognized by the city of Sapporo, the defendant’s hometown. After a summary psychiatric analysis, prosecutors concluded that Yamaguchi is mentally competent to stand trial for murder.

Earlier this year, Yamaguchi was released on probation after spending time in prison for a previous crime.

But a difficult family situation awaited him when he returned home to Sapporo. His father was occupied with caring for a younger sister suffering from a serious disease, according to his defense team.

Yamaguchi then left home to avoid causing the family further trouble, but he could not land a good job partly because of his poor communication skills as a result of his mental disability, his lawyers said.

By the time of the slaying, he was roaming Tokyo’s streets and combing garbage bins for food.

His lawyers said Yamaguchi’s difficulty in communicating is making it hard for them to understand why he may have committed the crime he stands accused of. He has reportedly changed his account of what happened each time they’ve met, except one part in which he said he felt contempt for the way the victim looked at him.

The “lesser panda cap” that witnesses saw the attacker wearing was a favorite of Yamaguchi’s, Soejima said, adding that his client remembered a shop clerk once telling him the hat was cute.

Soejima said that when he intentionally made fun of the cap at one point, Yamaguchi apparently got offended and stopped talking to him.

Yamaguchi’s defense team quoted him as saying he wished he had never been born.

Soejima said the restricted circumstances in detention facilities makes it a difficult task for lawyers to get into the minds of suspects with mental disabilities to look into the causes of their crimes.

He said he has often asked law enforcement authorities to let him sit shoulder to shoulder with his client so they can communicate more frankly, and not be separated by a transparent partition. They have never granted him this request.

According to the Justice Ministry, 203 criminal suspects and convicts with mental disabilities were sent to detention houses and prisons nationwide in 1999, accounting for 0.8 percent of the total sent to such facilities that year.

However, statistics on IQ levels of prison inmates indicate that more convicts could have mental disabilities. Among 24,496 people sent to prison for crimes in 1999, 5,813 apparently had IQ levels below 69.

Experts said an IQ of 69 or less may be regarded as mentally disabled.

The ministry conducts IQ tests on all convicts to determine which prisons they should be sent to and what kind of labor would be suitable for them, a ministry official said, claiming the tests are conducted by experts and regarded as trustworthy. Soejima said some mentally disabled convicts spend time behind bars without knowing the difference between police custody and prison time.

“I wonder if sending these people to jail has any meaning for them,” he said, adding that incarceration is not a solution for repeat offenders.

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