For the first time under its criminal justice system, Japan is set to introduce plea bargaining from June 1 under a revision to the Code of Criminal Procedure. Caution is needed when applying this system.
Under the bargaining system, public prosecutors will be able to shelve charges against suspects or request lighter sentences for defendants in exchange for them providing incriminating information on accomplices or other related parties.
The system will cover a wide range of offences, from corruption and crimes involving drugs and weapons, to bank-transfer scams as well as economic crimes such as bid-rigging and tax evasion.
Plea bargaining is already widely applied in Europe and North America. Police and public prosecutors envisage it being used to combat organized crime as well as corporate crime. It is hoped plea bargaining will serve as a method to smoke out criminal masterminds and top managers involved in crimes behind the scenes, rather than ending investigations with a single suspect. If the system is aptly applied, then it will certainly have merits from the perspective of being able to get to the bottom of crimes.
A lingering concern, however, is that false testimony could lead to false accusations. In the United States, there have been cases in which third parties have been caught up in crimes after suspects have lied to evade charges.
In a bid to prevent this, a punishment of up to five years imprisonment has been introduced for making false statements, and when a plea bargain is discussed, the suspect's lawyer must be present.
It has been pointed out, however, that such punishments could result in a person sticking to a lie. Moreover, the presence of a lawyer representing a suspect who is assisting in an investigation will not directly prevent unrelated individuals from being dragged into the crime. Such measures are therefore insufficient when it comes to putting the brakes on abuse of the system.
Moreover, the possibility cannot be ruled out that police and prosecutors will use the system to obtain statements from suspects that match what law enforcers suspect.
How can these concerns be cleared away then?
It is first necessary to create transparency in the process behind each plea bargain. It is essential to create and store records outlining negotiations so that they can be inspected when the credibility of a suspect's statements is called into question. Sufficient consideration is required for a possible turnaround in the suspect's statements.
Investigative authorities must also ascertain the true intentions of statements that shed light on other people's crimes. They must thoroughly collect objective evidence, without depending too much on the testimony.
The fact that testimony is based on plea bargaining will be exposed in court. The role courts have to play in scrutinizing evidence with a stern eye and preventing false convictions is extremely large.