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Japan

Criminal Procedure

The nation's criminal justice officials follows specified legal procedures in dealing with offenders. Once a suspect is arrested by national or prefectural police, the case is turned over to attorneys in the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office, who are the government's sole agents in prosecuting lawbreakers. Although under the Ministry of Justice's administration, these officials work under Supreme Court rules and are career civil servants who can be removed from office only for incompetence or impropriety. Prosecutors presented the government's case before judges in the Supreme Court and the four types of lower courts: high courts, district courts, summary courts, and family courts. Penal and probation officials administer programs for convicted offenders under the direction of public prosecutors (see The Judicial System , ch. 6).

After identifying a suspect, police have the authority to exercise some discretion in determining the next step. If, in cases pertaining to theft, the amount is small or already returned, the offense petty, the victim unwilling to press charges, the act accidental, or the likelihood of a repetition not great, the police can either drop the case or turn it over to a prosecutor. Reflecting the belief that appropriate remedies are sometimes best found outside the formal criminal justice mechanisms, in 1990 over 70 percent of criminal cases were not sent to the prosecutor.

Police also exercise wide discretion in matters concerning juveniles. Police are instructed by law to identify and counsel minors who appear likely to commit crimes, and they can refer juvenile offenders and nonoffenders alike to child guidance centers to be treated on an outpatient basis. Police can also assign juveniles or those considered to be harming the welfare of juveniles to special family courts. These courts were established in 1949 in the belief that the adjustment of a family's situation is sometimes required to protect children and prevent juvenile delinquency. Family courts are run in closed sessions, try juvenile offenders under special laws, and operate extensive probationary guidance programs. The cases of young people between the ages of fourteen and twenty can, at the judgment of police, be sent to the public prosecutor for possible trial as adults before a judge under the general criminal law.

Safeguards protect the suspects' rights. Police have to secure warrants to search for or seize evidence. A warrant is also necessary for an arrest, although if the crime is very serious or the perpetrator likely to flee, it can be obtained immediately after arrest. Within forty-eight hours after placing a suspect under detention, the police have to present their case before a prosecutor, who is then required to apprise the accused of the charges and of the right to counsel. Within another twenty-four hours, the prosecutor has to go before a judge and present a case to obtain a detention order. Suspects can be held for ten days (extensions were granted in special cases), pending an investigation and a decision whether or not to prosecute. In the 1980s, some suspects were reported to have been mistreated during this detention to exact a confession.

Prosecution can be denied on the grounds of insufficient evidence or on the prosecutor's judgment. Under Article 248 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, after weighing the offender's age, character, and environment, the circumstances and gravity of the crime, and the accused's rehabilitative potential, public action does not have to be instituted, but can be denied or suspended and ultimately dropped after a probationary period. Because the investigation and disposition of a case can occur behind closed doors and the identity of an accused person who is not prosecuted is rarely made public, an offender can successfully reenter society and be rehabilitated under probationary status without the stigma of a criminal conviction.

Institutional safeguards check the prosecutors' discretionary powers not to prosecute. Lay committees are established in conjunction with branch courts to hold inquests on a prosecutor's decisions. These committees meet four times yearly and can order that a case be reinvestigated and prosecuted. Victims or interested parties can also appeal a decision not to prosecute.

Most offenses are tried first in district courts before one or three judges, depending on the severity of the case. Defendants are protected from self-incrimination, forced confession, and unrestricted admission of hearsay evidence. In addition, defendants have the right to counsel, public trial, and cross-examination. Trial by jury was authorized by the 1923 Jury Law but was suspended in 1943. It had not been reinstated as of 1993, chiefly owing to defendants' distrust of jurors, who were believed to be emotional and easily influenced, and the generally greater public confidence in the competence of judges.

The judge conducts the trial and is authorized to question witnesses, independently call for evidence, decide guilt, and affix a sentence. The judge can also suspend any sentence or place a convicted party on probation. Should a judgment of not guilty be rendered, the accused is entitled to compensation by the state based on the number of days spent in detention.

Criminal cases from summary courts, family courts, and district courts can be appealed to the high courts by both the prosecution and the defense. Criminal appeal to the Supreme Court is limited to constitutional questions and a conflict of precedent between the Supreme Court and high courts.

The criminal code sets minimum and maximum sentences for offenses to allow for the varying circumstances of each crime and criminal. Penalties range from fines and short-term incarceration to compulsory labor and the death penalty. Heavier penalties are meted out to repeat offenders. Capital punishment consist of death by hanging and can be imposed on those convicted of leading an insurrection, inducing or aiding foreign armed aggression, arson, or homicide.

Data as of January 1994


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