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Profound changes in the way Japan dispenses criminal justice are either forthcoming or under consideration. Many people are ready to accept changes, even to welcome some of them, given the rising tide of serious crimes by minors and an apparent breakdown in police discipline. Calls to ensure the rights of victims and deal more harshly with some kinds of juvenile crime are widespread. Improvements in the system are needed, but so are sufficient safeguards built into any large-scale changes that are made.

The revisions in the Juvenile Law on which the three ruling-coalition parties have agreed — lowering the age at which minors can be punished for serious crimes from 16 to 14 and extending the maximum period of detention before trial from four to eight weeks, for example — have largely gone unchallenged. Of course, that is because murders and attempted murders by youths as young as 14 and 15 no longer seem rare, and the public agrees that young offenders should recognize they are accountable for their actions. But legitimate concerns over the increase in such crimes should not lead to too-ready acceptance of all the steps announced by the government for punishing the wrongdoers instead of rehabilitating them.

A case in point is the proposal just jointly announced by the Justice Ministry and the Public Prosecutor’s Office to allow prosecutors to directly investigate serious youth crimes instead of merely examining reports sent to them by the police, as in the past. This is in connection with such crimes as murder, robbery, rape, illegal confinement and the inflicting of injury resulting in death — all major crimes, to be sure. These are infractions for which the family courts that deal with such cases are required in principle to send suspects aged 16 or older to public prosecutors for indictment in district courts, but until now this has been at the judge’s discretion.

The plan would also permit family courts to let prosecutors attend court proceedings. The Justice Ministry says that this is intended in part to reflect the sentiments of the victims, since family-court proceedings are not open to the public. It must be acknowledged that victims’ rights have been ignored for far too long under Japan’s criminal-justice system. That does not mean that all thoughtful observers agree on the need for turning prosecutors loose on juvenile criminal suspects. If the fact-finding process in family-court hearings is truly “insufficient,” there should be other potential solutions to be examined first.

Although it was referring to adult criminal-court proceedings, not those in family courts, the Supreme Court itself noted a few weeks ago that, under the present legal system, prosecutors tend to indict only those suspects they feel virtually certain will be found guilty. The result, in the view of critics, is that the courts often merely give their approval to verdicts decided in advance, instead of actively seeking to determine a suspect’s guilt or innocence. The nation’s highest court believes that justice is better served, especially in cases of great public interest, when judgments are rendered by the courts, not the prosecutors.

The justices expressed these views in an unprecedented report to the Cabinet’s Judicial Reform Council containing recommendations for improving the way criminal trials are handled. Prominent among them, and widely welcomed, was the suggestion for putting a time limit of two to three years on criminal trials that now can sometimes be prolonged for a decade or more. As the Supreme Court pointedly noted, in some 70 percent of the district-court criminal trials that extend more than three years, hearings are held on average less than once a month.

That, however, overlooks the further issue of what legal experts say is a serious shortage of judges in this country. This accounts in part for the frequently rescheduled hearings that plague the system. Japan has only 2.3 judges for every 100,000 citizens, while the United States has 11.6, France has 8.4 and Germany has a surprising 25.6. There are many other urgent priorities for change in addition to the current concentration on juvenile crime.

Raising the number of judges is foremost among them. Another requiring immediate discussion is a proposal by the Justice Ministry to study the possibility of introducing life imprisonment without parole, a criminal sentence Japan does not presently have. Many support this as a possible replacement for the death penalty, Japan’s dependence on which has been widely criticized. One more is last week’s Supreme Court proposal for the introduction of a modified jury system for crimes that carry the maximum penalties and such civil actions as libel cases, in which public opinion should be considered.

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