In separate cases recently, family courts in the nation have handed down decisions concerning juvenile crime that appear to contradict each other. While one court committed an offender to a reformatory, two others decided that the offenders should face criminal charges. These decisions should prompt the public to ponder what roles a family court should play in dealing with juvenile offenders.

In Yamaguchi Prefecture, the family court recently handled the case of an 18-year-old male student who had been arrested for throwing a homemade bomb into a classroom at prefectural Hikari Senior High School and wounding 58 students. He targeted one student who was a member of a group that had teased the boy for his shyness.

Although prosecutors in the case called for criminal punishment, the court concluded that the boy should be sent to a secondary reformatory, noting that the boy had made and thrown the bomb in retaliation for bullying that had caused him considerable anguish.

The family court made this decision despite acknowledging that the consequences of the boy’s act were grave enough to make trial in a regular court possible: A large number of students had been injured and the explosive that the boy had made was capable of killing people. It seems that the Yamaguchi Family Court gave due consideration to the boy’s character and the best way for rehabilitating him. In its decision, the court said the most appropriate thing to do was to help the boy get along better with people and thus to place him under a regimen that would foster a sound development of body and mind.

Under a Juvenile Law revision effective since April 2001, the cases of juvenile offenders at least 16 years old, in principle, are to be sent to prosecutors for trial in regular court. Exceptions are allowed, however, after the juvenile offender’s character and motive for the crime are taken into account.

Meanwhile, the Osaka Family Court decided to have a 17-year-old boy stand trial in regular court after he was arrested for stabbing a male teacher to death and injuring two female teachers at Neyagawa Municipal Chuo Elementary School in Osaka Prefecture. The boy was a graduate of the school. The court said the heinous and inhuman nature of the boy’s actions justified having his case sent to prosecutors.

Still, the court could have been overly influenced by the revised Juvenile Law’s policy on severe punishment. During psychiatric tests, the boy was found to be suffering from a diffuse development disability characterized by maladjustment in his relations with other people. The court admitted that repeated rejection by people around him had imbued the boy with a feeling of being victimized and a tendency to indulge in fantasies of attacking others. But it said this disorder was relatively light and that he had the mental capacity to distinguish right from wrong, and to know when he should restrain himself.

In its decision, it expressed the hope that, if the boy were put in a correction facility, an appropriate treatment program that took into consideration his development disability would be worked out and implemented. The court’s decision seems illogical. If it really preferred that the boy receive appropriate treatment, its logical conclusion should have been to send him to a care institution that could offer such a program, rather than to prison.

The Tokyo Family Court also decided to put on trial in regular court a 16-year-old boy, a senior high school student from Itabashi Ward, who was arrested for murdering his parents. He fatally hit his father with a dumbbell and stabbed his mother to death. He also rigged a company dorm — where his father had been a live-in custodian — to blow up. Although the boy was about one month short of 16 when he committed the crime, the court decided to send his case to prosecutors, saying the boy’s crime was premeditated, “extremely heinous and serious” and had a great impact on society.

The boy is reported to have told a friend that his parents had become cold and strict with him. The court did not recognize any mitigating circumstances, such as repeated violence against him by the father or other forms of abuse that might have forced him into a psychological corner. At the same time, the court said the boy had big problems with his character and disposition and could not yet dispel hatred toward his father even though he regretted what he had done.

This family court’s decision cannot help leaving the impression that it did not do enough to find out why the boy snapped. The least a family court should do is to unravel the circumstances and motives behind a juvenile crime. The next thing it should do is ascertain the most appropriate way to help the juvenile concerned start life anew.

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