In response to growing calls from grief-stricken crime victims, the Diet enacted a law Friday to stiffen punishment for juvenile offenders, including longer prison terms.

Juveniles who commit crimes that would earn them life sentences if they had been adults currently face a limit of 15 years in prison. Less severe offenses are capped at 10 years.

The new law extends these two upper limits to 20 years and 15 years, respectively.

In addition, prosecutors and state-assigned lawyers will be allowed to attend a wider range of juvenile trials. Previously, their participation was approved only in cases involving the most serious types of crimes, such as murder or rape.

At a news conference Friday before the Upper House enacted the law, Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki brushed off criticism that the revision is only aimed at threatening young offenders with stricter penalties.

He said the move is instead designed to close the vast gap in punishment that juvenile and adult offenders could face.

“We believe the (revised law) will enable juveniles to be punished more properly,” he said.

The changes are expected to take effect as early as May.

Shonen Hanzai Higai Tojisha no Kai, a group of parents who have lost their kids to juvenile criminals, strenuously campaigned for a more draconian juvenile law.

“Since Japan is a law-governed nation, we’re fully aware we can’t just avenge ourselves by killing those who committed wrongdoing. But this is the very reason we count on the state for subjecting the young offenders to a punishment that they deserve.”

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations, meanwhile, welcomed the revision as it will allow state-assigned lawyers to join a greater range of trials, a step it believes will better serve the rights of young offenders.

The group, however, expressed disagreement with the other changes in the law.

Subjecting kids to longer jail terms, it said, is tantamount not only to alienating them so much that swift rehabilitation becomes difficult, but also to raising the risk of recidivism.

And prosecutors’ presence in the trials will put heavier pressure on juveniles that, coupled with their immaturity, will prevent them from readily expressing themselves.

“Punishing kids must be conducted in a way that will prioritize ensuring their sound growth and staving off recidivism,” the group said.

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