Changing the Juvenile Law

A panel of the Legislative Council, an advisory body for the justice minister, had been discussing whether to lower the maximum age of minors subject to protection under the Juvenile Law from 19 to 17. An amendment to lower this age threshold would have a major impact on rehabilitation programs for youths who have committed a criminal offense. The panel should proceed with utmost care in this discussion.

A 2015 amendment to the Public Offices Election Law that lowered the voting age from 20 to 18 from June last year, and a government plan to revise the Civil Code to lower the legal age of adulthood to 18, have touched off moves to lower the maximum of age for protection under the Juvenile Law as well. In February, then-Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda asked the council to consider whether it would be appropriate to lower the age.

Instead of seeking punishment for minors, the Juvenile Law aims to help them become productive members of society through educational support. Proponents of lowering the age of minors covered by the Juvenile Law appear to think that such an amendment would serve as a deterrent against youth crime. There is a belief that some minors commit offenses fully aware that they won’t be held criminally responsible and instead will be protected by the Juvenile Law. It should be noted, however, that education and guidance provided by juvenile reformatories and other facilities play an important role in rehabilitating young offenders. During hearings by the panel, experts from those facilities said the current system that places emphasis on education aimed at rehabilitation of minor offenders is working effectively. Members of the panel should not forget the significance of the programs provided by these facilities.

Currently, all cases of juvenile offenders, except when grounds for suspicion are 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. Offenders deemed at risk of fleeing before the family court procedure starts are sent to juvenile classification facilities for examination by experts there. On the basis of these findings, the family court decides what custodial measures should be taken. Offenders sent to a juvenile reformatory are subject to education and guidance programs for rehabilitation. Those put on probation or provisionally released from the reformatory receive counseling from probation officers.

While heinous crimes committed by minors are often cited in arguments for amending the Juvenile Law, there are exceptions built into the system for when minors commit serious offenses. By taking the nature of the crime and mitigating circumstances into account, family courts can send minors 14 or older to public prosecutors to face criminal procedures. Minors 16 or older who are suspected of committing crimes resulting in death are in principle sent to the prosecutors.

If the maximum age for protection under the Juvenile Law is lowered to 17, indictments of youths aged 18 or 19 who commit minor offenses — such as shoplifting or stealing bicycles, which constitute a large portion of juveniles crimes — would likely be suspended. Even if they are indicted, they would likely be given suspended sentences or fined. In the panel’s hearings, experts from juvenile reformatories said such offenders would be deprived of the benefit of educational or guidance measures at reformatories, thus losing an opportunity to adjust their relations with parents and society. Probation officers said that if youths aged 18 or 19 are placed on probation under criminal proceedings, the officers won’t be able to obtain pertinent information on the youths from family courts, making it difficult for them to give proper guidance to offenders. There are warnings that if young offenders are excluded from educational and rehabilitation support under the Juvenile Law, recidivism rates could rise.

The Legislative Council and its panel should think carefully about whether it would be wise to lower the maximum age of minors protected by the Juvenile Law just because the minimum voting age has been lowered and the government plans to lower the legal age of adulthood. They should give serious thought to potential problems that could arise from amending the Juvenile Law.

The government, for its part, should not rule out the option of setting different legal ages of adulthood — for voting, for criminal procedures, for financial matters such as the power to sign contracts and taking part in publicly run gambling, and for drinking alcohol and smoking — in view of the diverse factors involved.