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Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009

Flaws in criminal justice

Failings in the administration of criminal justice in Britain are bound to be major issues at the next general election, due in 2010. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, when he assumed office in 1995, undertook to be tough on crime and the causes of crime. This promise does not seem to have been fulfilled. The statistics of offenses produced by the authorities are unreliable as the definitions applied by the various police forces differ; it is probable that the situation is not much worse than it was, but there is widespread public concern about crimes of violence, especially by youths with knives, and the public do not feel any safer than they did 14 years ago.

The government has tried to tackle the problem by enacting a string of legislative measures, which have greatly increased the number of indictable offenses and increased the mandatory punishments for those convicted. One new measure provides for magistrates to issue antisocial behavior orders, but these have been treated by some young offenders as accolades rather than punishments!

The government relaxed the rules governing the sale of alcoholic drinks in the hope that this would reduce disorder when the pubs closed, but it has done nothing to stop the binge-drinking that plagues many city centers at night. Enforcement of laws on trafficking and possession of illegal drugs such as heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and marijuana, although supported by a majority of the electorate, have probably led to an increase in crimes committed by addicts to fund their illegal purchases.

All these measures have led to a record increase in the number of criminals in prison, giving Britain the largest proportion of population in jail in Western Europe. Prison-building has not kept up with the number of criminals being sentenced in the courts and resources to educate and retrain offenders are far too limited. To prevent inhumane overcrowding, prisoners on short sentences generally serve less than half their sentences and are released early to supervision by a probation service that has been overwhelmed. Many prisoners, especially youngsters, quickly re-offend and re-enter prison through the revolving door.

Police forces have been expanded but they complain about the bureaucratic procedures with which they have to comply when searching or making arrests. As a result many criminals, even when traced (and a high proportion of at least minor crimes are not even properly investigated), are able to escape with only a police caution. Victims complain that the courts are too lenient and that criminals are able to escape conviction by the wiles of defense counsel paid for by the taxpayer. But British judges rightly uphold the principle that an accused is innocent until proved guilty and this principle is backed by the traditional jury system.

In an effort to cut crime there has been a huge increase in surveillance cameras. Britain now probably has more such cameras in streets, car parks and shops than anywhere else in the world. These may well deter petty criminals, but they are often an intrusion of privacy and the powers granted to local authorities to use snooping devices can be misused. A mother who was wrongly suspected by her local authority of falsifying her address to get her child into the local school of her choice recently sued the authority for infringement of human rights by such intrusive snooping.

Government ministers and police authorities faced with public demand for measures to deal with crime are often only too ready to cut corners and adopt measures that jeopardize hard-won freedoms. Constant vigilance is necessary if we are to avoid going down the slippery slope toward an authoritarian society.

The criminal justice system in Britain is thus far from ideal. But how much better is it in Japan? The incidence of crime in Japan is reputed to be low and the Japanese police, with their numerous police boxes, seem to be more in evidence than police in Britain. But the British have not been impressed by the efficiency of the Japanese police, who allowed a man accused of murdering an English-language teacher to escape and have only just arrested him. They also hear with dismay of the lengthy time it takes to complete criminal trials. Are some accused being made scapegoats for the errors of others, as seems to have been the case with one banker who after 10 years' struggle managed to get his innocence accepted, but only after the case had gone to the Supreme Court and he had suffered many years of injustice? They wonder why so many more Japanese criminals confess to their crimes than criminals in other jurisdictions. Are they pressured to confess? Why do the police need 23 days to question suspects, who in this period are not apparently allowed access to a lawyer? The Japanese courts have finally come round to limiting the powers of judges to make decisions on their own by having lay members sit on the bench with the judge, but will this provide as much protection against wrongful conviction as would a full jury system?

In Britain, the Howard League for Penal Reform is an influential charity campaigning for humane conditions in prisons. Is there any similar organization working for an improvement in the conditions in Japanese jails, where in winter the cold can apparently be extreme? No European country now retains the death penalty, which is regarded as a cruel and unacceptable punishment. Japan, like the United States and China, however, still retains the penalty and the last LDP government did not hesitate to carry it out without even giving forewarning to relatives of the condemned person.

Will the new DPJ government in Japan, with its progressive creed, adopt measures — including abolition of the death penalty — designed to protect human rights within the Japanese penal system?

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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