Justice Minister Makoto Taki on Sept. 7 asked his ministry’s Legislative Council to consider revising the Juvenile Law to make punishment more severe for juvenile criminals. The council members should carefully study the matter by fully taking into account the principle of the Juvenile Law, whose main purpose is to facilitate the healthy development of juveniles. They also should pay attention to the view held by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and law scholars that strict punishment hampers the reform of minors.
The primary reason for the justice minister’s request is to change a provision in the Juvenile Law that says that imprisonment for an indeterminate term with a set upper limit should be given in cases in which a definite term of imprisonment of three years or longer would normally be given to adult criminals. There are two categories. One is an indeterminate term whose upper limit is five years and the other whose upper limit is 10 years. Mr. Taki asked the Legislative Council to consider whether it is appropriate to lengthen the upper limit to 10 years and 15 years, respectively.
Behind his request are voices among survivors and bereaved families of victims of crimes committed by minors that the punishment meted out to them is too lenient. Such feelings are also reflected by lay-judges who take part in the criminal trials of minors.
In a lay-judge trial of a 19-year-old man charged with beating a male senior high school student to death, the Sakai branch of the Osaka District Court in February 2011 gave the defendant an indefinite prison term of from five to 10 years, the severest sentence allowed under the Juvenile Law. But the ruling added that even 10 years imprisonment is not enough and that a revision of the law is in order.
An indefinite prison term provided under the Juvenile Law is based on the idea that because the personality of a minor is malleable, priority should be given to their education and reform, and to socially rehabilitating them. An indefinite prison term provides more flexibility in treating individual minors depending on the progress of their education and reform. In the case of the Osaka District Court ruling, once he has served five years, it is possible to release the boy from prison at any time if it is ascertained that he has been sufficiently reformed.
If a minor commits robbery or rape, the Juvenile Law currently provides an indefinite prison term of up to five years or 10 years, respectively. Under the idea the justice minister presented to the Legislative Council, the upper limit would be extended to a maximum 15 years while the lower limit will be set at seven years. For a crime that normally results in life imprisonment for adults, the current indefinite prison term of from 10 to 15 years would also be changed to an indefinite prison term of from 10 to 20 years.
The council should avoid uniformly applying strict punishment and instead uphold the spirit of the Juvenile Law by creating a system that can flexibly deal with individual minors on a case by case basis depending on their circumstances.
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