As part of national legal reform, a speedy trial system for misdemeanors was introduced last month in summary and district courts. Trials for minor offenses — from indictment to sentencing — used to take about two months. Under the new system, the period has been shortened to two weeks in principle. Just one hearing is held and, in most cases, a ruling is given in the same session. It will remove a burden from defendants and enable judges to use more of their time to deal with complicated cases. But caution is called for.

The new system can be applied when facts are clearly established through a defendant’s pretrial statement and a prosecutor is confident that an examination of evidence will be completed quickly. In the presence of a lawyer, the prosecutor must get written consent from the defendant agreeing to the simplified procedure. The judge’s ruling must carry a suspension of any prison sentence handed down. The defendant cannot appeal the ruling by claiming a factual mistake.

The possibility cannot be ruled out that after the procedure starts, a defendant will retract his or her pretrial statement, insist on his or her innocence and demand normal proceedings. The judge must not consider this grounds for a disadvantageous ruling against the defendant. Prosecutors, judges and lawyers also must take utmost care to ensure that their obsession with a speedy conclusion to a case will not take precedence over careful inquiries.

The speedy procedure applies to minor offenses such as overstaying visas, violating the stimulant drug control law and shoplifting. It cannot be used for crimes like murder and burglary.

The first trial under the new procedures was conducted in Tokyo District Court on Oct. 16. It took only 25 minutes from the start of the hearing to the sentencing, including the judge’s confirmation of the defendant’s willingness to proceed with the procedure. The defendant, a Chinese accused of violating the immigration control law, was handed a 2 1/2-year prison term that was suspended for five years.

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