The government is considering granting some criminal convicts amnesties in line with the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito on May 1.
With these amnesties, the government exercises its administrative authority to reduce or eliminate criminal punishments. In the past, the government has issued pardons on the occasions of national celebrations and condolences. However, questions remain as to whether it is appropriate for the administrative branch of government to change judicial rulings in light of the independence of the three branches of government.
In Japan, amnesties have been carried out on 11 occasions in the postwar period, including after Emperor Showa passed away in 1989 and after Emperor Naruhito wedded Empress Masako in 1993.
The government either uniformly carries out amnesties under an order providing for conditions for pardons or the Cabinet works out its own standards to pardon those who are not granted amnesties under the order.
In recent years, those convicted of relatively minor offenses, such as violations of the Public Offices Election Act, the Road Traffic Act and the Minor Offenses Act, are typically subject to amnesties.
In past amnesties, the government had been criticized for uniformly reviving the right to vote and the right to run for public office for those who lost such a privilege after being convicted of election offenses. In 1993, convicts were pardoned in 1,277 cases under standards set by the Cabinet, and nearly three-fourths of those granted amnesties had been found guilty of election offenses.
The Cabinet decides who should be subject to amnesties and there is no system under which outsiders can check whether such decisions are appropriate. It is only natural that the public suspects that pardoning a massive number of those convicted of violating the Public Offices Election Act reflects political consideration.
Japan's history of amnesties is long, and believed to date back to the Nara period (710-794). Japan introduced the system as a means to ensure that the Imperial Court ruled Japan with the emperor as its leader, and samurai rulers maintained the system. Under the postwar Constitution, the Cabinet decides on amnesties and the Emperor attests the decision. In modern society where the definition of the emperor as the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people is widely supported, the amnesty system, which people could speculate those in power use to bolster their authority, is unnecessary.
The government explained that the amnesty system plays a role in the criminal justice policy, such as giving relief to those who have been convicted while considering the level of their rehabilitation. Officials also point to the need of the system as a relief measure to those who have been falsely convicted.
Under the judicial system, however, inmates can be released on parole depending on their behavior in prison and those who cannot accept the final ruling can seek a retrial. The amnesty system's significance as a criminal justice policy has diminished.
As growing importance is being attached to extending relief to victims in crimes, it is contradictory to lessen the punishment of perpetrators regardless of their victims' will.
The National Offenders Rehabilitation Commission regularly screens applications for pardons. Uniformly carrying out criminal amnesties under separate standards on the occasion of Imperial succession and other occasions can no longer win the public's understanding.