Lay judges tend to impose tougher sentences than professional judges on defendants who have committed sex crimes or inflicted injuries resulting in death, a comparative study of court rulings before and after the 2009 introduction of citizen judge panels showed Saturday.
Regardless of the nature of the crime, lay judges also handed down more suspended sentences than professional judges, while fewer appeals have been filed against their decisions, the research shows.
The study is based on data compiled by the Supreme Court covering lay judge rulings on 1,646 defendants who were found guilty up to the end of last year, and rulings by professional judges on 2,146 defendants in 2008.
“We still cannot find patterns in sentencing that characterize lay judge trials,” said Takayuki Aoki, a former judge and professor of criminal law at Surugadai University’s law school.
Aoki said he believes that overall, citizen judges have maintained a balance regarding precedents, while trying to reach the best decisions in individual cases.
The lay judge system started in May 2009, introducing panels of six citizens and three professional judges to deliberate on such serious crimes as murder, robbery resulting in death, and inflicting injuries or reckless driving resulting in death.
By the end of last year, 9,511 citizens had served on the bench in 1,561 cases, in which 1,646 people were convicted and two acquitted. In addition, 3,413 people were put on standby as replacements for lay judges, for instance in the event of illness, raising the total number of citizens involved in the new system to nearly 13,000.
The study also shows that in cases of suspended sentences, citizen judge panels more often attached supervised probation as a condition, apparently an indication of their belief in the defendant’s potential to be rehabilitated.
Among specific charges, the research shows longer jail terms were given by citizen judge panels than professional judges in trials for rape resulting in death or injury.
Panels of professional judges tried 158 defendants on the charge, of whom 64, the largest number, were given sentences of between three and five years in prison.
In contrast, of the 89 defendants tried by citizen judges on similar charges, 28 were given terms of five to seven years, followed by 27 who were sentenced to between seven and 10 years in jail.
On the charge of indecent assault resulting in death or injury, the largest number of defendants tried by professional judges, 33, received sentences of up to three years, whereas citizen judge panels sentenced 20 defendants, the largest number, to between three and five years.
Regarding sex crimes, citizen judge panels issued a series of rulings indicating that sentencing before the lay judge system’s introduction was too lenient, given the pain inflicted on the victims.
Citizen judges were also tougher on the charge of inflicting injuries resulting in death.
Professional judges handed down sentences of between three and five years to 83 of the 196 defendants who stood trial before them, followed by 41 who were sentenced to five to seven years in prison.
But in lay judge trials involving 122 defendants, 36 received sentences of between five and seven years, followed by 31 who were given prison terms of seven to 10 years.
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