Revisions to Japan's Juvenile Act were passed by the Diet on May 21, paving the way for imposing stricter punishments against offenders aged 18 and 19 by classifying them as "specified juveniles," while retaining the age range covered by the law -- which in principle prioritizes children's rehabilitation over punishment -- to up to 19.
The move comes as the age of majority under the Civil Code is set to be lowered from the current 20 to 18 in April next year.
However, 18- and 19-year-olds are still on the path to mental maturity, and it is thought that their chances of straightening themselves out through education are high. The latest legal amendment raises concern that it could undermine the Juvenile Act's principles of attaching more weight to rehabilitating young offenders than punishing them.
What's distinctive about the Juvenile Act in handling criminal offenses is that all cases are first sent to family courts for hearings. Family court investigating officers interview offenders and look into their family environment and backgrounds, before judges decide on punishment based on that information.
This protocol will remain intact under the revised Juvenile Act, including for specified juveniles in their late teens. On the other hand, the legal revision is expected in principle to produce more cases in which juvenile offenders face adult criminal trials.
Under the current system, offenders under 20 are subjected to adult criminal trials only if they have killed a person on purpose. The legal change, however, will expand the scope to burglary, arson and rape, among other offenses.
Under the revised law, if a juvenile defendant was handed a prison sentence in a criminal court, they would be sent to prison. The amendment is primarily aimed at penalizing offenders, and compared to going to juvenile reformatories where instructors watch over inmates round the clock and provide guidance, prison inmates would not be provided with sufficient education.
In juvenile criminal cases, it is sometimes the case that offenders themselves are not fully aware of the gravity of their crimes and their repercussions.
Hearings in family courts will be as important as ever for juvenile offenders. Law enforcers must decide on punishment with careful consideration for what's needed for their rehabilitation.
Another major change from the previous system is how offenders' names will be treated once they are indicted.
Under the revised law, it will become possible to disclose the names of juvenile offenders. Up until now, it was prohibited to publicly identify minors who committed crimes, and media organizations were banned from reporting their legal names and releasing their photos. This is because disclosure of their criminal history could hinder job hunting and advancing to higher education.
Once offenders' real names and photos are spread on the internet, they could remain online forever. It is also necessary to take into account the possibility that the accused could be acquitted in criminal trials.
In addition, 18- and 19-year-old offenders will be subject to similar restrictions to those for adults when they attempt to acquire national qualifications and other licenses for jobs after they return to society.
The current rehabilitation-focused system has played a certain role in preventing recidivism. And yet, the Juvenile Act has been toughened every time serious crimes have occurred.
If the latest legal revision was made merely to slap young offenders with criminal responsibility matching their legal rights under the Civil Code and their voting rights, it would not lead to their rehabilitation. It is essential to investigate new ways to assist their efforts to become self-reliant.