A special panel of the Liberal Democratic Party has begun discussing whether the maximum age of minors to which the Juvenile Law is applied should be lowered to 17 from the current 19 — in line with the change in the minimum voting age from 20 to 18 sought in the proposed revision to the Public Offices Election Law. Members of the panel should not make hasty decisions, but instead carefully weigh related issues, since lowering the maximum age of minors covered by the Juvenile Law will have repercussions in a wide range of areas, including criminal trial of minors, the police’s control of juvenile delinquents and child welfare.
The LDP panel should take time to study, for example, the situation of juvenile delinquencies and crimes, efforts made and measures taken at juvenile reformatories and other supportive institutions, and what schools and communities are doing to help juvenile delinquents. Discussions over the Juvenile Law do not need to keep pace with the proceedings on the amendment to the election law, which has been jointly submitted to the Diet by the LDP-led ruling coalition and several opposition parties, and is likely to be enacted in the current Diet session.
Heinous crimes committed by minors have triggered calls for changing the Juvenile Law so that more of them should be criminally prosecuted in the same manner as adults. Some LDP lawmakers say that if youths aged 18 and 19 are to be newly given the right to vote, they should bear social obligations correspondingly. But in discussing the issue the panel’s members need to understand the basic aim of the Juvenile Law — which was introduced in 1948 — which is to help minors attain healthy growth and to take protective measures for juvenile delinquents to rectify their personality and adjust the environment they are in.
It should be noted that several revisions have already been made to the Juvenile Law to treat and punish underage offenders more severely, including steps to deprive some youths of protective measures provided under the law.
In 2001, the minimum age of minors who can be given criminal punishments was lowered from 16 to 14. Minors age 16 and older who are suspected of having committed serious crimes also can now be directly turned over to prosecutors to face regular criminal trials, skipping proceedings at family courts. A 2007 revision lowered the minimum age of minors who can be sent to juvenile reformatories from 14 to around 12. Under a 2014 revision, the upper limit of imprisonment for a definite term for a minor 17 years of age or younger was raised from 15 years to 20 years. But the law still retains a provision that if a minor who was in that age category at the time of the crime is convicted of an offense that would be considered a capital crime for an adult offender, the minor should be given life imprisonment instead of the death penalty.
The scope of cases for juvenile proceedings at family courts in which public prosecutors are allowed to be present has also been expanded. The original purpose of family court proceedings for juvenile offenders was to decide whether they should be placed on probation or sent to correctional or welfare facilities— instead of being handed criminal punishments — by taking into account their family background, life history and the possibility of rehabilitation. But in line with the trend for harsher treatment and punishment for minor offenders in recent years, the proceedings are becoming more like criminal trials with attention mostly focusing on the criminal acts committed, the motives and the consequences.
While heinous crimes committed by minors grab society’s attention, the number of minors involved in criminal cases is steadily declining. According to a National Police Agency report on juvenile delinquency, the annual number of minors treated as criminal suspects by the police dropped from 123,715 in 2005 to 48,361 in 2014. The number of juveniles suspected of involvement in serious offenses — murder, burglary, arson and rape — fell from 1,441 in 2005 to 703 last year.
This trend is expected to continue with the shrinking of the youth population due to the nation’s low fertility rate. Therefore there does not appear to be a pressing need to lower the maximum age of minors to which the Juvenile Law is applied, which would expand the scope of youths subject to criminal punishment.
Members of the LDP panel need to consider whether it is wise to deprive a certain segment of young offenders of the opportunity to receive education aimed at rehabilitation as provided by the Juvenile Law by lowering the maximum age of minors. Some studies in the United States reportedly show that the rate of recidivism is higher among minors criminally prosecuted for their offenses than among those whose cases were handled by juvenile courts.
The personal histories of many of the minors accused of criminal offenses show that the environments in which they grew up were such as to make it difficult for them to develop into mature, responsible, law-abiding individuals. After they have paid their debt to society, juvenile offenders must once again return to their communities. Rather than seek more severe penalties for them, the LDP panel in its discussions should concentrate on measures to stop youths from committing crimes in the first place and to prevent those who do commit crimes from becoming repeat offenders by focusing on their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
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