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Editorial: No foreseeable meaning to lowering age coverage of Japan's Juvenile Act

Discussion is wavering within the Justice Ministry's Legislative Council over whether Japan should limit the ages at which the Juvenile Act can be applied to under 18, down from under 20. The council was originally scheduled to state its position in February, but it has still not done so.

Those aged 18 and over have already been granted the right to vote, and under the Civil Code, the age of majority in Japan will also be lowered to 18 from 20 starting April 2022. These developments have led to discussion on whether to similarly revise the Juvenile Act.

Three years have passed since the Minister of Justice asked the council about the issue. The reason there has been no response so far is that considering the issue on the presumption that the age will be lowered has left officials in a corner.

The Juvenile Act places more emphasis on offenders' reform than on punishment, and stipulates procedures for handling crimes committed by juveniles differing from those taken for adult offenses. One major characteristic of the system for juveniles is that cases are handled by family courts.

Family court investigators probe the minor's home environment and their upbringing, and examine the background to the crime. Following proceedings in the family court, the individual receives education and work training in a juvenile reformatory or guidance while living in society to help them turn over a new leaf.

This system has played a certain role in helping young people avoid repeating their offenses, helping to create a safer society. Data shows that those who come out of juvenile reformatories reoffend at a lower rate than other young people who come out of prisons.

A working group of the Legislative Council has been discussing whether to leave the path of rehabilitation education open to those aged 18 and 19. One proposal was to have public prosecutors decide on punishment, and then if a suspension of indictment was warranted, send the person to a family court. It was argued, however, that this would place a heavier burden on the offender than that faced by adults, so the discussion failed to produce a conclusion.

Because of this, the Justice Ministry made a new proposal of increasing the scenarios in which 18- and 19-year-olds could be criminally tried as adults without changing the outline of having family courts deliberate on the case.

However, there is already a provision in the Juvenile Act stating that juveniles aged 16 or over are in principle to undergo a criminal trial when they intentionally commit an offense resulting in the death of another person. Moreover, those aged 18 or over can receive the death penalty. The new proposal from the Justice Ministry hardly differs from the current system.

As long as discussion is held on the premise of lowering the age at which the law applies, then family courts will cease to be involved in the rehabilitation of young people aged 18 and 19 who are at risk of committing crimes.

The reason that debate started in the first place was there were calls for stricter criminal punishment. But the number and ratio per population of minors subjected to police action has been declining since 2004.

Experts are united in their opinion that the Juvenile Act has been effective in helping straighten out young people who commit crimes.

It is impractical to apply a blanket change to all 18-year-olds. With no visible meaning to lowering the ages covered by the Juvenile Act, it is time to wipe the slate clean and rethink the idea.

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