In spite of the debate over the existing legal framework for crimes committed by juveniles in the wake of a 12-year-old boy admitting to murdering 4-year-old Shun Tanemoto in Nagasaki, experts have mixed views over whether the age at which juveniles can be held criminally responsible should be lowered from the current 14.
Prompted by a series of violent crimes committed by youngsters, including the 1997 killing and decapitation of an 11-year-old Kobe boy by a 14-year-old junior high school student, the Juvenile Law was revised in April 2001 to lower the age at which crimes by young people can be sent to prosecutors from 16 to 14.
That change brought the law in line with the Penal Code, which says juveniles must be at least 14 to be held criminally responsible.
But this change, widely seen as the trump card in the fight against juvenile crime, made no difference in the Nagasaki case, as no one dreamed that such a serious crime could be carried out by someone so young, observers said.
Yoshiro Ito, a lawyer well-versed in juvenile crime, said holding a child like the suspect in the Nagasaki case criminally liable, in the same way as an adult, contradicts reality because youths commit such crimes because they are becoming increasingly childish, not more mature.
“While it is often said that more and more children are committing crimes that outdo those by adults, this is because they are becoming more immature and lack the rationality to suppress their desires,” he said. Investigators have said the suspect in the Nagasaki case abducted the boy to molest him.
“Punishing them for criminal offenses means giving up on rehabilitating them,” Ito added. “We should not do that to children who are just 12.”
The hardliners, however, have a different opinion.
Teikyo University Professor Takeshi Tsuchimoto said that while he believes further revision of the Juvenile Law is difficult at present, as it was only made stiffer two years ago, society cannot overlook the increase and escalation in the cruelty of crimes by youngsters.
“We must at least make it possible for such offenders to enter a reformatory, which now only happens to those above 14,” he said.
Under existing laws, the suspect in the Nagasaki case can only be held for approximately 300 days at institutions he cannot leave of his own free will, he said, adding that even that will only happen if he is given the maximum detention period at a Juvenile Classification Office and it is determined that he needs to undergo a full psychiatric examination.
“In Britain, there was a similar case (to the Nagasaki murder) in Liverpool in 1993, where two 10-year-olds kidnapped, tortured and killed a 2-year-old boy,” Tsuchimoto said. “Although they were given new identities and released (on probation in 2001,) they were initially sentenced to indefinite detention.
“The Nagasaki case can be the starting point for considering the option of detaining juveniles based on their deeds and not their age,” he added. “If imprisoned children are still at the age of compulsory education, they can receive an education while adult inmates work.”
National Police Agency spokesman Satoshi Kadokawa acknowledged that juvenile crime is rising sharply and that the perpetrators of serious crimes are getting younger.
“Statistics compiled by our Community Safety Bureau show that 3,530 12-year-olds were taken into custody last year for violating the Penal Code,” he said, adding that the figure was 20,477 for children 13 years or under, and that it has remained above 20,000 for the last decade.
The number of murders committed by youngsters aged 14 and older surged from 18 in 2001 to 52 in 2002, he added.
So is the current legal framework enough?
Ruriko Take’s 16-year-old son was killed by a boy of the same age. Take, who heads the Osaka-based Association for Victims of Juvenile Crimes, said the biggest problem with the present system is that it prevents juvenile offenders from repenting, as adults around them always tell them they are protected by law.
She added that this is one reason why many become repeat offenders.
“To prevent the recurrence of such crimes, we have to make juvenile offenders directly face and understand the weight of their crimes,” she said, adding that when she saw her son’s killer in court during his civil trial, he showed no signs of remorse. He was released from a reformatory after 10 months.
“The important thing is not just to lower the punishable age for the sake of punishment,” Take said.