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Moves are afoot to lower the maximum age of minors covered by the Juvenile Law to 17 from 19 — in line with the amendment to the Public Offices Election Law that lowered the minimum voting age to 18 and a revision to the Civil Code set to be submitted to the Diet this year to lower the legal age of adulthood to 18. There are reports that the Justice Ministry will ask the Legislative Council, an advisory body to the justice minister, to launch formal discussions on the matter as early as next month. A hasty conclusion should be avoided, however, given that not only did a Justice Ministry report last month show mixed opinions among experts on the question, but views are split between the partners in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition.

The amendment to the election law, enacted in 2015, called for discussions on whether the age threshold under the Civil Code and the Juvenile Law should also be lowered. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party has already proposed lowering the maximum age of minors subject to protection under the Juvenile Law to 17. The Justice Ministry has meanwhile set up an in-house group to study the matter, holding hearings with roughly 40 people, including scholars, those involved in juvenile welfare, and crime victims and their families.

The report released by the Justice Ministry group last month cited both pros and cons in revising the Juvenile Law, while also mentioning possible measures that could be taken to deal with anticipated problems should the revision take place.

Under the Juvenile Law, people under 20 are in principle protected against criminal prosecution for their acts, and are referred to family court proceedings for educational and rehabilitation measures. Proponents of lowering the age threshold in the Juvenile Law point out that, given that the amended election law and planned change in adulthood age under the Civil Code allow people to become adults in political, social and economic terms once they turn 18, these youths should also be made to take due responsibility for their actions, which in turn would promote their own awareness as adults. Calls for such a revision have also been fueled by a series of high-profile heinous crimes committed by minors over the years, with hopes that the prospect of criminal punishment would serve as a deterrent.

But opinions vary as to what effect the Juvenile Law revision will have on minors. The Justice Ministry report quoted some opinions calling it unacceptable that minors evade criminal punishment for serious offenses just because of their age. Others called for caution, however, citing concerns that eliminating current programs for education and rehabilitation of young offenders could increase the risk of recidivism.

Currently, all cases of juvenile offenders, except when evidence is insufficient, are sent to a family court, where examiners trained in psychology and education look into the offender’s personal history, family background, relations with friends and so on. Based on these findings, the family court decides on what custodial measures to take rather than imposing criminal punishment. When the offenders are sent to a juvenile reformatories, they are subject to education and guidance programs for rehabilitation. If they are put on probation or provisionally released from the reformatories, probation officers offer them counseling.

In cases where their offenses have resulted in deaths, minors 16 and older will in principle be sent to prosecutors to face criminal proceedings. But other than those cases, the Juvenile Law places emphasis on the rehabilitation of youth offenders through educational support aimed at stopping them from committing more transgressions.

If the Juvenile Law is revised, indictments against youths aged 18 or 19 who commit minor offenses — such as shoplifting or stealing bicycles, which constitute a large portion of juvenile crimes — will likely be suspended, leaving the offenders without the benefit of educational or guidance measures. Komeito, the LDP’s junior partner in the ruling coalition, is reportedly calling for caution on the Juvenile Law revision on the grounds that doing away with rehabilitation and education measures for 18- and 19-year-old offenders increases the risk of recidivism.

As possible substitutes for imprisonment or suspended sentences, the Justice Ministry report mentions the introduction of a system in which young convicts, including 18- and 19-year-olds, would be placed in educational programs similar to the ones offered at juvenile reformatories, as well as the creation of a new form of criminal punishment that does away with the requirement of prison labor and focus instead on the rehabilitation of convicts based on their individual needs. These steps will require budgetary and manpower support if they are to serve as effective measures that promote the rehabilitating young offenders. The ministry should continue to carefully discuss the matter and not rush to a conclusion.

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