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A Lesson From Japan

The Japanese may arguably have the most effective justice system in the Western World. A glance at the accompanying graphs will readily verify this statement.

So what are the Japanese doing right? If one were to believe proponents of popular trends in the U.S., you'd think the Japanese must build a lot of prisons. They probably have harsher sentences, and none of that Constitutional molly-coddling of criminals that bogs down our courts. In short, punishment in Japan must be much more severe than in the U.S..... Wrong.

According to John O. Haley, (U.W. Professor of Law and East Asian Studies) in Mediation in Criminal Justice, (Sage Pub. 1989) the focus in Japan veers away from retribution and revenge. The main goal of the Japanese justice system is a restoration of peace between the victim, offender, and the community. This approach requires confession, remorse, and repentance from the offender. But it equally requires fairness, leniency, and absolution from the criminal justice system.

According to statistics published by the Supreme Court of Japan, in 1984 the median prison term of prisoners sentenced for all criminal offenses (combined) was 1-2 years; for homicide: 5-7 years; robbery: 3-5 years; arson: 3-5 years; rape: 2-3 years. Those who are sentenced to prison rarely serve more than one-year terms. For example, 64,990 persons were sentenced to imprisonment in 1984. However, 56 percent received suspended sentences and less than 13 percent were subjected to prison terms exceeding one year. Sentences were suspended for nearly 25 percent of those convicted of homicide or robbery, and 35 percent for those convicted of arson or rape. Only about 45 percent of all imprisoned offenders actually serve their full prison term.

Critics of this article might say the Japanese system can only work well in the context of Japanese culture. They say that such a scheme won't work in the U.S.

I say this: In America we put prisoners to death, and that violence is reflected back to our culture. Our society clamors for revenge, retribution, and punishment of offenders. In turn, society receives back from them rage, resentment, and more revenge. Our culture reflects the adversarial nature of our criminal justice system. If we were to shift our focus away from revenge and retribution, and concentrate instead on reparation and restoration of peace in the community, those values would, in turn, be "plowed back" into our society and offenders would respond with respect for the law instead of resentment.

Rather than build more prisons and continuing to devise harsher sentencing schemes, let's take a long hard look at the Japanese system and find ways to incorporate its values into our own. Let's give peace a chance.

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