To become the victim of a crime is a tragic experience that can cause lasting physical, psychological or financial damage. In the past, crime victims and their family members have not received much help from society. Last December, however, the Diet passed the Basic Law for Crime Victims, which recognizes that victims of crime have a right to receive governmental and legal assistance to overcome their difficulties.
In December the Cabinet will decide on a basic plan to assist crime victims and their families. A government panel of experts has worked out an outline containing specific proposals to be incorporated into the plan. This is a welcome development, but some of the proposed measures require careful consideration.
The committee’s report shows that in 2003, 1,237,230 people suffered physical injuries or lost their lives as a result of crime. Its proposals focus on recovery from physical and psychological damage, prevention of psychological damage, recovery of lost property and financial assistance.
The committee proposes establishing a new system in which crime victims could seek compensation from offenders. They would be allowed to ask the same court handling the criminal case to render a decision on requests for compensation, and the prosecutor would play a leading role in the procedure. Evidence and conclusions in the criminal trial could be used in the trial for compensation, sparing the victims and their family members the burden of collecting relevant evidence. Still, technical problems may arise from the criminal and civil cases being handled together by the same court.
Other specific proposals include expanding government financial grants to crime victims and family members. For example, grants could be provided when criminals do not have sufficient means to pay compensation and when crime victims have lost their ability to earn a living. In addition, the police would bear the cost of transporting the bodies of those who have died as the result of a crime. Specialists to treat crime victims suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder would also be trained.
The committee has also proposed giving preferential treatment to applications for public housing filed by crime victims who wish to move from residences where the crimes took place; informing crime victims when perpetrators are to be released from prison and where they plan to reside; keeping the names of sex-crime victims secret during trials; and calling on the Japan Judicial Assistance Center, to be established next year, for help in paying legal fees accrued in civil compensation lawsuits against criminals.
In what could herald a sea change in criminal trial procedures, the committee urges that crime victims and their family members be given a greater voice in criminal procedures. In rather abstract terms, the committee says it intends to spend about two years working out a system in which crime victims and their family members can directly involve themselves in the criminal process. They are already allowed to express their feelings during hearings and are given preferential treatment when in attendance. If what the committee says means that they end up acting as assistants to the prosecutor in hearings — even to the extent of questioning eyewitnesses and defendants — the burden on defendants and the defense counsel, who will then have to defend themselves not only against the allegations of the prosecutor but also against those of crime victims and their family members, may increase substantially. Such changes could thus infringe on the rights of defendants, who, after all, must be considered innocent until the court convicts them.
The committee also said that, in announcing criminal cases, the police should be the ones to decide whether to publicize the names of crime victims, depending on the nature of the crime. The committee should have taken into account the fact that reporters who learn the names of crime victims and suspects are likely to contact them or people close to them to ascertain whether the crimes actually happened and whether the people mentioned by police were actually involved.
News reports based on such coverage can help the public judge whether a police investigation is appropriate, legally or otherwise. If police are permitted to withhold the identity of crime victims, their investigations may lose transparency.
Basically, a judgment on whether to make public the names of crime victims should be left to the media. Measures to help crime victims and their families should be based on a proper balancing of not only their rights and those of the defendants or ex-convicts, but also privacy rights, freedom of the press and the people’s right to know as well.
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