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By Alan Brender

Jail break

Japan should rehabilitate its delinquent youths, not punish them

Alan Brender is a journalist working in Tokyo. He has published 20 books and over 2,000 magazine and newspaper articles

A spate of monstrous crimes committed by juveniles over the past few years has inflamed older members of Japanese society and caused them to clamor for tougher laws and more severe punishment for juvenile criminals.

Japanese legislators are in the process of changing their justice system, which over the past 50 years has mainly attempted to rehabilitate young lawbreakers rather than punish them for their crimes.

Japan now seems to be following the path of the United States, where children as young as 6 are arrested, handcuffed and hauled off to jail. This is not the direction to go. A few extreme crimes should not condemn thousands of juvenile offenders to be locked away and reduce efforts to transform them into law-abiding citizens.

The outcry started in 1997 when a 14-year-old boy murdered 11-year old Jun Hase, later severing his head and displaying it in front of a school in Kobe. This heinous crime caused outrage. Japanese legislators sprang into action to enact laws to lower the age at which juveniles could be tried for serious crimes from 16 to 14.

In 2003, a 12-year-old boy in Nagasaki molested a 4-year-old boy and then threw the child from the roof of a parking garage, killing him, thereby sparking demands to lower the age for charging youngsters with serious crimes to 12.

“We should not do that to children who are just 12,” says Yoshiro Ito, a lawyer who specializes in juvenile crime. “Punishing children for criminal offenses means giving up on rehabilitating them.”

Takeshi Tsuchimoto, a Teikyo University professor, disagrees. He says that it is impossible to overlook the increasing cruelty of crimes committed by youngsters, and that children under 14 should be sentenced to reformatories to pay for their crimes.

Ruriko Take, whose 16-year-old son was killed by a boy of the same age, echoes Tsuchimoto’s view. “We have to make juvenile offenders directly face and understand the weight of their crimes,” she says.

But not all parents of victims share this hard-line approach. Kyoji Mitarai, father of a 12-year-old girl who was stabbed to death in Sasebo by an 11-year-old classmate, said shortly after his daughter’s death, “While I don’t know who the attacker is, she is still a child, and I worry about her future.”

All of us in Japan should worry about the futures of the more than 140,000 children charged with crimes each year.

The Japanese crime rate is currently one of the lowest in the world. And the number of people behind bars is also very low—fewer than 50 people per 100,000. The United States, by contrast, has by far the most people locked up—between 500 and 600 per 100,000—as well as one of the highest crime rates in the world. Does Japan really want to follow the US model on juvenile crime and create new generations of criminals?

“If you treat more juveniles as adults, the violent crime rate will go up,” said Bobby Scott, a representative in the US Congress, during a debate on a bill intended to crack down on juvenile criminals in the United States. “If you treat them as adults, they will be warehoused with adults when they are sentenced. If you treat them as juveniles, they will receive education, counseling and preparation for when they get out. And the recidivism rate will be much less—all studies show this.”

Since 1947 Japan has relied on family courts to handle juvenile cases and to suggest rehabilitation measures. These courts have placed children with foster families, sent them to childcare facilities, or left them on probation with their own families. They have also remanded hardcore teenage criminals over 16 to reformatories. Since last year, 14 and 15 year olds have also been sentenced to serve time.

Before new laws are enacted offering fewer and fewer opportunities for rehabilitating wayward youths, the Japanese need to consider the success stories over the past five or six decades. How many people today are law-abiding adults because they were given chances to overcome their childhood criminal activities, which often stemmed from dysfunctional families, abusive parents, bullying at school, or influential bad companions?

Ways can be found to deal with the few juveniles who commit horrible crimes, but the focus should not be on these few. It should be on the thousands of juvenile offenders who can be salvaged.

Children need guidance, advice and structure much more than they need punishment. Special homes, education and psychological counseling for errant youths may in general be far better for society than locking these kids up in reformatories or adult prisons. It depends on what this nation wants to teach them.

Japanese authorities can teach them to become better individuals, better family members and better members of society, or they can let the youngsters’ fellow prisoners train them to become skilled thieves, loyal gang members and outlaws of society. Japanese authorities are at a crossroad—let’s hope they take the right road.

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