By Magdalena Osumi, staff writer
Owing to the latest amendments to the Juvenile Law and the Civil Code, Japan will no longer treat people age 18 and 19 as minors, in principle, starting Friday.
While the amendment to the Juvenile Law will result in stricter punishments for some young offenders, the government is also shifting its focus to resocializing juvenile delinquents to prevent recidivism.
“In order to enable young offenders to rehabilitate into society, it is important that young offenders don’t only reflect on their acts,” Justice Minister Yoshihisa Furukawa said at a news conference last week. “It is also essential for them to gain awareness of their responsibilities and develop an appropriate attitude as a member of society while focusing on one’s strength and potential.”
The revision to the Juvenile Law will be implemented alongside the amendment to the Civil Code, which will lower the legal age of adulthood to 18 from Friday.
As 18- and 19-year-olds will now be legally viewed as adults, they will also be given the right to enter into legal contracts and transactions without parental consent. Such contracts include those for purchasing a cellphone, taking out a car loan, signing an apartment lease and signing up for credit cards.
Furukawa explained that programs targeting young offenders following the revision of the Juvenile Law will be amended to include educational activities that will give the offenders skills they will need in adulthood and raise their awareness of responsibilities they will have as adults. Juvenile delinquents will be assigned to individually tailored programs with topics in accordance with the characteristics of their behavior and offenses.
Starting Friday, people age 18 and 19 will be regarded as specified juveniles under criminal law. The change will mean that for criminal trials they may be sent from family courts, which normally handle cases involving juvenile delinquents, to prosecutors.
In some cases, such offenders may still be subjected to rulings handed down by family courts. Such rulings could include incarceration in a secured juvenile facility for a term of up to three years, or probation for six months or two years under the supervision of the court, depending on the severity of the law violation.
Prior to the amendment, the length of the incarceration period was not clearly specified. Young offenders were technically handed down specific sentences, but time periods were relatively vague and in most cases, juvenile offenders were given a term of about a year, since there was no practice of recommending individual rehabilitation programs. On average, juvenile delinquents spent about 18 months in correctional facilities. Decisions on sentence length were usually made by officers at correctional facilities on a case-by-case basis. With the amendment, the terms of incarceration are specific and the period of incarceration or probation will be determined by the court.
Before the revision, no specific period was determined by family courts for probation periods and, in principle, supervision by probation officers continued until the offender turned 20 or until it was lifted at the discretion of the probation officer. With the change, the court will decide during the trial whether the offender should be subjected to a six-month or two-year probation term.
If a specified juvenile violates some conditions of the probation agreement and, for example, skips a scheduled interview with a probation officer, the family court may send the delinquent to a correctional facility. This measure will be limited to specified juveniles given a two-year probation period after the revision takes effect.
Under the existing regulations, only cases involving children age 16 and over whose intentional acts have resulted in someone’s death have been subjected to criminal trials.
Additionally, the current statute states that homicide is the only criminal charge for which minors are subject to prosecution. This will also change with respect to 18- and 19-year-olds following revision of the juvenile law. The revised law will expand acts subject to criminal charges to also include robbery, rape, arson and other offenses punishable by imprisonment of at least one year, with the possibility of facing the death penalty for serious crimes.
However recommendations for custodial sentencing for a given offense will be made separately for children age 17 and younger and for the young people who will now be considered adults.
Those age 17 and under will only be given prison sentences of up to 15 years while such sentences for defendants age 18 or over could be extended to up to 30 years.
Until now, the names of juvenile offenders have also been withheld by media outlets but that ban will no longer apply to adults under the new definition. Following the change, media outlets will be allowed to disclose the names and photographs of offenders age 18 and older after indictment. However, the ban will still apply to those under the age of 18.