In a report submitted to Justice Minister Keiko Chiba on Feb. 24, a study panel of the Justice Ministry’s Legislative Council called for abolishing the statute of limitations for some crimes. The government plans to submit relevant bills to revise the Criminal Law and the Criminal Procedure Law to the current Diet session. Since the proposal is expected to have a drastic impact on penal policy, the government and the Diet are urged to handle the matter carefully.

The statute of limitations was introduced in 1880. At present it extends 25 years for crimes whose maximum penalty is capital punishment, such as murder and robbery murder. The study panel would eliminate the statute of limitations altogether for these crimes while doubling the length of it — to 30 years, 20 years or 10 years, respectively — for crimes whose maximum penalty is 15-, 10- or five-years imprisonment.

The panel responded to family members of some serious crime victims, who demanded justice for perpetrators. Improvement in DNA analysis that can sustain investigation long after crimes are committed is another factor behind the report.

The proposed changes have some positive aspects: Murderers will no longer be rewarded for having evaded justice for 25 years; “cold cases” can be pursued as new evidence and DNA technologies arise; and the families of murder victims can continue to seek justice — and closure.

Some problems, however, will also arise if the time limit is abolished. If a suspect is indicted after a long time has lapsed since a crime was committed, there is a chance the evidence could be compromised and the possibility of false charges will increase. Furthermore, investigative authorities will find it more difficult deciding when to disband investigation teams and when to dispose of evidence.

The report says its proposals for abolishing or doubling the statute of limitations should be applied to past crimes for which the statute of limitations has not yet expired. This could raise issues of retroactive justice. The government and the Diet must carefully examine the many problems contained in the report.

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