Ramblings & ephemera

Japan’s 99.8% criminal conviction rate

From Hiroshi Matsubara’s “Trial By Prosecutor” (Legal Affairs: March/April 2003):

In 1990, a retired high-court judge gave an influential speech that indicted the criminal justice system [of Japan], citing the nation’s 99.8 percent conviction rate as evidence that prosecutors, not courts, decide the fate of criminals. Criminal trials, he declared, are merely “formal ceremonies” en route to conviction. …

Prosecutors are vested with tremendous authority, and courts routinely defer to prosecutorial judgment. The prosecutor, in collaboration with law enforcement, is expected not only to enforce the laws but to decide how to use them to serve the public good. He is given far broader powers of investigation than his American counterpart, including the ability to search, seize, and interrogate without the interference of defense counsel. Justice in Japan is often equated to cooperating with the prosecutor. One of the earliest changes made by legislators to the American legal framework was the addition of a “societal duty” to submit to questioning upon arrest.

Because of their importance in the Japanese system, prosecutors have an overwhelming need to be right. A single loss can end their career. Prosecutors nearly always go to trial with a confession in hand, meaning that criminal courts are rarely asked to decide guilt or innocence. At trial, the counsel for the defendant usually spends his time trying to demonstrate the client’s contrition, his chances of being rehabilitated, and the low risk he poses to society – factors that affect the sentence, not the verdict.

Even in contested cases, the outcome for defendants is bleak. In American federal courts, about one-fifth of all criminal defendants plead innocent – and of those, one-third are subsequently convicted (state numbers indicate a similar trend). Meanwhile, in Japan, despite the fact that only 7 percent of defendants choose to contest their prosecution, the conviction rate in such instances is still about 99 percent. …

But in the aftermath of this unlikely victory, the system turned on Mainali. A higher court stayed his acquittal and ordered him detained while the finding at trial was reconsidered. In the United States, where defendants are protected against double jeopardy, Mainali’s acquittal would have ensured that he went free. Japan has no such standard: The opportunity to appeal a criminal acquittal is just one more weapon in the prosecutorial arsenal. Critics have pointed out that the stigma of losing a case puts prosecutors under great pressure to appeal each and every acquittal. In the notorious Kabutoyama case, prosecutors spent 21 years unsuccessfully appealing not-guilty verdicts handed down against a teacher charged with killing one of her students. …

Japanese prison terms, for both violent and nonviolent offenses, are shorter than those for comparable crimes in the United States. Murder, for instance, can carry a sentence of as little as three years. What is indisputable, however, is that in failing to emphasize procedural justice – a system based on rights and vigorous advocacy – Japan entrusts the integrity of its system to the good judgment of its prosecutors.

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