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Debate over lowering criminal adulthood entails measures to prevent repeat offenses

A panel to the justice minister on Feb. 9 began discussing whether to lower the maximum age for applying the Juvenile Act from the current 19 to 17. With measures to support the rehabilitation of young, elderly and disabled offenders also up for review, the panel's discussion may drastically change Japan's penal policy.

At a general meeting of the Legislative Council of the Ministry of Justice on Feb. 9, Parliamentary Vice Minister of Justice Toshiro Ino addressed the attendees on behalf of Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda, saying, "The debate on criminal adulthood is a major issue concerning how to handle adolescents over criminal justice in general and how to rehabilitate them and prevent them from reoffending."

A study group in the Justice Ministry released a report in December last year, based on which the Legislative Council will discuss the issue. If the maximum age for administering the Juvenile Act was lowered from the current 19 to 17, 18- and 19-year-old offenders will not be covered by such protective measures as being sent to reformatories -- a point of concern among critics. "If offenders cannot go through education at reformatory schools, there will be increased risks of repeat offenses and delinquencies," one observer said. In response, the Justice Ministry report called for examination of new measures to promote rehabilitation of young offenders aged around 20.

Currently, inmates serving prison sentences are assigned many hours of prison industry work such as woodwork and printing, and characteristics common to the young set are not necessarily taken into consideration. Although there are study guidance and drug addiction recovery programs available for inmates, only a limited time is spent on such a curriculum.

The Justice Ministry report thus proposed that prison sentences with work obligations be integrated into sentences without such obligations. Under that scenario, young, old and disabled inmates would be able to undergo rehabilitation programs based on their respective characteristics, allowing for more effective guidance against repeat offenses.

The ministry report also proposed the introduction of a system in which the pronouncement of a ruling or sentence for a convicted defendant is deferred to allow the person to spend a certain period of time in society. The defendant may ultimately be spared of serving a sentence if they pose no problems during the probation period, when they receive guidance from probation offices.

Behind these debates lies the serious situation surrounding repeat offenses. According to the Justice Ministry's white paper on crime, the number of criminal offenders arrested has been on the decline since 2005, and that of repeat offenders is also gradually decreasing. However, in contrast to the large decline in the number of initial offenders arrested, the ratio of repeat offenders against all criminal offenders apprehended climbed to a record 48 percent in 2015 -- prompting calls for the need to look into penalties and treatments in prison adapted to each inmate's characteristics, such as age and disabilities.

Taichi Yoshikai, a former public prosecutor who currently serves as a professor at Kokushikan University, pointed out, "It's desirable to devise a new sentence by modifying the prison sentence with work obligations in order to prevent repeat offenses while giving consideration to the sentiment of crime victims." With regard to the legislative panel's discussion, he commented, "The debate will probably focus on a consistent strategy to prevent repeat offenses, starting from responses to young offenders through to prosecution and trial stages and to their reintegration into society. The discussion would mark a watershed moment for criminal justice in the future."

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