Last July, a lay judge panel in Osaka handed down a 20-year prison sentence to a man convicted of killing his sister after the prosecution had only asked for 16 years. Earlier this month the Osaka High Court reduced that sentence to 14 years, because the defendant had been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a developmental disorder. In the original ruling, the judges cited Asperger's as one of the reasons for giving the man the maximum sentence, saying that there was little hope of such a person being rehabilitated. The high court, on the other hand, concluded that the defendant did not fully understand the gravity of his crime because of the disorder, and thus it was unfair to increase his sentence simply because he "could not show sufficient remorse."

As reported in this column at the time, the media reacted with shock after the original trial, saying that lay judges obviously didn't comprehend the term "developmentally disabled." In fact, as long ago as 2010, or only a year after the lay judge system went into effect, it was being reported that the new system was delivering harsher sentences than professional judges had in the past for equivalent crimes. According to experts, lay judges identify more readily with victims.

But another factor that contributes to longer sentences is the popular misconception that crime is getting worse. According to a government white paper published last fall, the number of inmates in Japanese prisons peaked in 2006, and has been decreasing ever since. There was a slight rise between 2000 and 2006 but that was only because sentences had been made harsher by law, again as a response to a perceived increase in criminal behavior, and as a result people who were sent to jail stayed there longer, a situation that has resulted in prison overcrowding and a general sense that Japan is sinking into barbarism.