Japan legislators to toughen law as youth crimes soar

TOKYO, Reuters

Japanese lawmakers are set to propose toughening the nation’s juvenile crime law, hoping to deter violence in the wake of a spate of brutal youth crimes that has horrified traditionally safe Japan.

Last month, in the most recent incident, a 15-year-old boy broke into a neighbor’s house, stabbing three people to death and injuring two. He reportedly told police he attacked them because they accused him of peering in their bathroom window.

The ruling coalition is near agreement on a proposal to lower the age at which individuals become liable for criminal punishment to 14 from the current 16, an official with the dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) said on Wednesday.

The government will submit a bill on the proposal after parliament opens later this month, an LDP official said.

“There are more and more violent crimes being committed by people under the age of 16,” he said. “As things stand now, the law is so lenient it seems to some people as if they aren’t being punished at all.”

Analysts doubt that merely changing the law will be an effective deterrent.

“I believe there are better methods for reducing youth crime,” said Akira Idota, a professor at Osaka International University. “Education, for example.”

“Just putting these kids in prison will do nothing.”

A string of apparently senseless killings over the past few months has fuelled public anxiety about youth crimes in a country long known for a low crime rate.

In June, a 17-year-old schoolboy beat his mother to death with a metal bat, while a month earlier another 17-year-old, who had a history of mental illness, stabbed an elderly woman to death in a bus hijacking.

One of the grisliest crimes of recent years, the 1997 murder and beheading of an 11-year-old boy, was carried out by his 14-year-old playmate.

Analysts say youth crime is the result of a complex mix of social pressures made worse by Japan’s lingering economic woes. Other factors include a breakdown in family values, violence in the media, and an oppressive education system.

According to current Japanese law, individuals under the age of 20 are considered juveniles. Their cases are heard in a family court, and prosecutors are not permitted to attend. The emphasis is on rehabilitation rather than punishment.

For this reason, when a 19-year-old U.S. marine was accused of molesting a woman in July this year, his case was sent to a U.S. military court rather than to Japanese authorities because he would face a harsher sentence.

In some cases, people 16 years and older can be referred to a prosecutor for disposition in criminal court. It is this provision lawmakers are seeking to change.

Agreement among coalition partners on the proposal, however, has not come easily, the LDP official said.

The Buddhist-backed New Komeito, the second largest coalition member, has dragged its heels over the plan ever since the LDP first floated it last month, although by Wednesday it was coming around, Japanese media said.

The New Komeito argued that involving prosecutors would diminish the legal protection of juveniles and ultimately make rehabilitation more difficult.

It finally agreed in order to preserve coalition unity, with the proviso that any offenders under 16 be sent to reform school rather than prison, Japanese media said.

But Idota at Osaka International University said he felt changing the law was aimed more at public opinion than anything else.

“The people who put this proposal together are thinking more about the feelings of crime victims,” he added. “They aren’t really thinking about whether this will have an impact on crime.”