Say You did, Even if You didn’t

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Criminal justice in Japan

On the face of it Japan’s system of criminal justice looks as if its gets a lot right. Crime rates are lower in Japan than almost anywhere else—the murder rate is less than a tenth of America’s. Those arrested for minor wrongdoing are treated with exceptional leniency. Less than one in 20 Japanese deemed to have committed a penal offence go to prison, compared with one in three of those arrested in America, where the average jail term is much longer.

In Japan the emphasis is on rehabilitation, especially of young offenders. The rates of recidivism are admirably low, partly because the state is adept at involving families in reforming those who stray.

Yet the state’s benign paternalism has a dark side. The chief reason the system looks good is that Japan is a remarkably safe society. And where once police worked closely with local communities to solve crimes, now they struggle to catch criminals. The system relies on confessions, which form the basis of nine-tenths of criminal prosecutions. Many confessions are extracted under duress. Some of those who admit guilt are plainly innocent. The extraordinary lack of safeguards for suspects in Japanese interrogation cells is a stain on the whole system, failing victims as well as those wrongly convicted.

In a country more inclined than the West to think of itself as a big family collective, admission of guilt is often seen as the first step to readmission into society. It is also the surest route to a conviction. Prosecutors and police are thus under immense pressure to make suspects talk, and have powerful tools to encourage them to do so.

Common criminal suspects may be held in detention for 23 days without charge. Many have only minimal contact with a lawyer. Few interrogations are recorded, and then not in their entirety, so there is not much to stop interrogators piling in. Physical torture is rare, but sleep deprivation, which is just as effective, is common. So are various other forms of psychological coercion. Some interrogators use moral blackmail (“Think of the shame you are bringing on your family”). A few, if they are convinced that the suspect is guilty, simply fabricate a confession and press the suspect into signing it.

In a court system without an adversarial approach to establish innocence and guilt, judges too rarely question whether confessions really are voluntary. Yet time and again innocent people have been shown to confess to crimes in the hope of a more lenient sentence—or simply to make the interrogation stop. In October a mother convicted of killing her daughter for the insurance money was released after a crime reconstruction proved her innocence. Last year Iwao Hakamada was freed after 46 years on death row when a judge declared that his conviction was unsafe (among other things, he appears to have been tortured at the time of his arrest). One lawyer estimates that a tenth of all convictions leading to prison are based on false confessions. It is impossible to know the true figure, but when 99.8% of prosecutions end in a guilty verdict, it is clear that the scales of justice are out of balance.

As a step towards restoring due process, all interrogations should be filmed from start to finish. Suspects should have ready access to defence counsel, to whom prosecutors should also disclose all evidence. Interrogations should be much shorter; suspects should be properly rested. Investigators who fabricate evidence should be put in the dock themselves. Prosecution cases should rely more on detective work, and less on self-incrimination. Such reforms would give the innocent a better chance of keeping their liberty.

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