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Japan to start plea bargains amid hopes for cracking criminal gangs, white collar crime

The Tokushima District Court in Tokushima is seen in this Dec. 18, 2017 file photo. (Pool)

TOKYO -- A Japanese version of plea bargains is set to be introduced for the criminal justice system on June 1. Plea bargaining is already a feature of legal systems in the United States and some European countries. However, unlike in the U.S. where suspects may plead guilty to a charge for a shorter sentence, the Japanese version will only allow sentencing deals for lawbreakers who provide evidence against other wrongdoers, including those higher up the criminal decision-making ladder.

The new "agreement system" is hoped to help bring highly placed corporate wrongdoers and senior gangsters to justice. However, observers have pointed to the risk of innocent people being targeted for investigation based on the faulty or dishonest statements of suspects seeking a plea bargain.

Take for example a company employee being questioned in a political corruption probe. The employee tells investigators, "I passed money to this politician on orders from a board member at the company where I work. I'll tell you everything if you take my interests into consideration." Starting June 1, Japanese law enforcement will be able to forgo indicting the employee for passing off the cash in exchange for evidence against his boss and the politician, refocusing the investigation on a higher level of responsibility.

The Legislative Council, an advisory body to the justice minister, had been contemplating a Japanese plea bargain system since 2011, when it also debated legal measures mandating police and prosecutors make audio and video recordings of suspect questioning (which have since been partially implemented). The government ultimately decided to introduce plea bargains for those willing to provide information on the criminal responsibility of other offenders such as their superiors as a means to diversify collecting evidence.

The Japanese plea bargain system will only be applicable to certain offences under the Penal Code, the Act on Punishment of Organized Crimes and Control of Crime Proceeds, and financial crimes such as bid-rigging and tax evasion.

Hopes are high that plea bargains will help law enforcement expose hidden and increasingly sophisticated crimes, as corruption indictments have dropped from 220 in 2006 to 61 in 2016. The government is also looking at applying plea bargains to unmask offences by organized criminal gangs and fraud rings. However, one prosecutor commented, "There is a risk that members of gangs and fraud groups may name someone completely unrelated to the case out of spite. Considering the trustworthiness of suspect statements, I think it's most realistic to apply this (plea bargaining) to white collar crimes."

To avoid the risk of plea bargains catching innocent people up in criminal probes, the deals will be discussed with and witnessed by an attorney, and providing false testimony or evidence will be punishable by up to five years in prison.

In addition, in May this year the National Police Agency (NPA) issued a revision to criminal investigation procedures stating that plea bargaining is to be conducted at the direction of prefectural police chiefs. Also, in March the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office issued a notice declaring, "District prosecutors shall, when making use of the plea bargain system, act in accordance with the directions of the chief high public prosecutor, and the high public prosecutors office shall in turn cooperate with the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office to determine the credibility of the testimony obtained."

Former prosecutor and current attorney Toshiya Natori commented, "What is agreed on in the plea bargain will be presented at a public court hearing, and closely examined by the judges. I believe investigative bodies will of course also supply objective proof to back up the testimony provided and decide very carefully whether to do a deal or not."

However, Konan University professor and criminal procedure expert Kana Sasakura countered, "It's entirely up to investigative authorities to decide that there is sufficient evidence to say there's no risk of innocent parties getting caught up in a case. Parts of this process are opaque, and I have doubts that false accusations can be entirely prevented."

For investigators, plea bargains are a double-edged sword. If the bargains become habitual, increasing numbers of suspects and defendants may refuse to speak until they "get a deal." Depending on the crime in question, deals for reductions in sentences prosecutors will demand in exchange for information may also invite public ire. One prosecutor told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Basically, we will continue to operate as before. I don't think there will be a rush to use plea bargains right after they're introduced."

(Japanese original by Kenji Tatsumi, Kazuhiro Toyama and Suyon Kimu, City News Department)

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