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Lifestyle

Japan stiffens law on youth crime amid social angst

TOKYO (Reuters) - Children as young as 11 who have committed a crime could be sent to reformatories under a Japanese law enacted on Friday, part of a trend toward stiffer penalties reflecting growing angst about grisly crime.

The police station, where a 17-year-old boy turned up holding a severed human head and claiming that he had killed his mother, is seen in Aizuwakamatsu, 200 km (125 miles) north of Tokyo, in this May 15, 2007 file photo. Children as young as 11 who have committed a crime could be sent to reformatories under a Japanese law enacted on Friday, part of a trend toward stiffer penalties reflecting growing angst about grisly crime. REUTERS/YOMIURI/Kenji Ishihara

The prospect that such young children could end up in reformatories, which stress military-like discipline, has sparked concern about human rights violations and charges the government is treating symptoms, not causes, of juvenile crime.

“This is part of the overall trend, based on the perception that crime is increasing, to impose harsher penalties and strengthen the power of the police,” said Yoshifusa Saito, a lawyer who specializes in juvenile crime.

“But the reality is different. Neither crime overall nor horrendous crimes are increasing, nor will imposing tougher penalties succeed in reducing juvenile crime,” Saito said.

The Japan Federation of Lawyers issued a statement expressing its opposition to changing the current system, under which juvenile offenders under 14 are sent to community homes.

Japan lowered the age at which youths can be sent to reformatories to around 12 after a number of gruesome crimes in recent years prompted calls for tougher penalties.

Just last week, a 17-year-old boy was arrested on suspicion of murdering his mother after he turned up at a police station carrying her severed head in his school bag.

In 2004, an 11-year-old girl stabbed a classmate to death, prompting calls for harsher punishment of juvenile criminals.

Overall crime by minors aged 14-19, however, has decreased after hitting a peak in 1983 and the number of homicides committed by juveniles has been stable for decades, according to Justice Ministry data.

The trend toward stiffer punishment for juvenile offenders mirrors a growing tendency by the courts to hand down harsher sentences for adults -- including the death penalty -- in part because of an increasingly vocal victims’ rights movement, human rights activists say.

Prosecutors this week sought the death penalty for a man convicted of killing a 23-year-old woman and her 11-month-old daughter in 1999 after the Supreme Court ordered a lower court to re-examine the case. The lower court had sentenced the man, who was 18 when he committed the crime, to life imprisonment.

The youngest age at which a convicted criminal can receive the death penalty in Japan is 18, but such sentences are rare.

Hiroshi Motomura, the woman’s husband and father of the child, has been outspoken in seeking the death penalty for the crime.

“I think he engaged in the base act of murder with the easy idea that he would not get the death penalty because he was a minor,” Motomura told a news conference this week. “It is natural that he should pay for his crime with his life.”

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