Balance rehabilitation, punishment under newly revised Juvenile Law

The question is how to promote offenders’ awareness of themselves as an adult while respecting the principle of the Juvenile Law, which attaches importance to the possibility of rehabilitation.

The revised Juvenile Law has been enacted, defining people aged 18 and 19 who have committed crimes as “specified juveniles” with the aim of strengthening penalties against their crimes to a certain extent. The revised law has expanded the scope of crimes for which family courts send specified juveniles to prosecutors, making them subject to criminal punishment.

This is in line with the lowering of the legal age of adulthood under the Civil Code from 20 to 18 in April next year. The right to vote has already been granted to people aged 18 or older. From the viewpoint of the overall consistency of the legal system, it can be said to be natural to treat people who are 18 and 19 differently from those aged 17 and under.

After the prosecution refers all the offenses committed by a juvenile to a family court, the court investigates in detail the history of how the juvenile was raised and their family environment. The court decides whether to prioritize the possibility of the youth’s rehabilitation and place them under protective measures, such as by putting them on probation or sending them to juvenile correctional institutions, or whether to send them back to prosecutors.

Under the current law, juveniles who are sent back to prosecutors are limited to people involved in such incidents as the intentional killing of others, including murder and injury resulting in death. The revised law, however, has added robbery, arson and forcible sexual intercourse, among other crimes. After indictment, it will also be possible for the media to report information that identifies specified juveniles, such as their name, mug shot and other personal data.

If a prison sentence is finalized by the court, the person will be jailed. But it is necessary to give careful consideration to the treatment of young prisoners.

It has been pointed out that prisons, unlike juvenile correctional institutions, are focused on punishment, so there are few educational approach efforts there.

When accepting 18- and 19-year-olds who are in the process of maturing and have the potential to be rehabilitated, efforts should also be made to provide them with guidance that focuses not only on punishment but also on rehabilitation, by making use of educational programs at juvenile correctional institutions.

It will be important to introduce vocational training suited to the times, such as teaching them IT-related knowledge and skills, to prevent repeat offenses after they are released from prison.

Even for specified juveniles who have not been sent back to prosecutors and have been placed on probation or sent to juvenile correctional institutions by a family court, education programs should be improved to help heighten their awareness of themselves as an adult.

During debate on the recent revision of the Juvenile Law, victims of crimes and bereaved families said that 18- and 19-year-olds should be removed from the framework of the Juvenile Law in accordance with the enforcement of the revised Civil Code stipulating that 18-year-olds are considered to be adults.

A supplementary provision of the revised Juvenile Law stipulates that a review of this system will be considered five years after the revised law took effect.

If the concept of “18-year-old adults” takes root, society’s opinion of specified juveniles could change. In that case, it will be necessary to consider whether to alter the situation in which the Juvenile Law is still applied to people aged 18 and 19.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 26, 2021.