The Supreme Court said Monday that 2.9 percent of defendants who pleaded not guilty to criminal charges were found innocent at their initial trials in 2007, marking the highest level in a decade.
The above quote summarises the progress of legal change in Japan, a country renowned for its incredibly high conviction rate in the region of 99.9%. Note that the 2.9% mentioned above by no means leave a conviction rate of 97.1%: the statistic refers to the rate of people found innocent after having pleaded not guilty.
District courts handed down rulings on 69,238 defendants last year, of whom 4,984 denied the charges against them as their trials opened.
Of the defendants pleading innocent, 97 were found fully innocent and 48 partially innocent. Among their trials were 896 serious cases, such as murder and arson, that will require the involvement of citizen judges. In the serious category, 19 of the defendants were found completely or partially innocent.
The 4,984 denial cases represent just 7.2% of the total cases brought to court. The 145 defendants that were found fully or partially innocent represent only 0.21% of the total cases brought to trial. Thus Japan can be said to have a conviction rate of 99.79%. When seen this way, this news hardly seems spectacular, despite urgings to the contrary:
The so-called innocent rate at the initial trial level was up from 2.6 percent in 2006 after hovering above 2 percent since 2003, according to the Supreme Court’s Criminal Affairs Bureau. It hovered between 1.2 percent and 1.9 percent from 1998 to 2002.
The 0.3% difference between 2006 and 2007, based on 4984 denial cases, translates into just over 14 extra people being let off.
I just finished watching Sou Masayuki’s Soredemo, Boku wa Yattenai starring Kase Ryo and Yakusho Koji. For me, this movie and more particularly its reception represents the culmination of pressure movements against the Japanese legal system. The movie is as much a criticism of the system as any of the Phoenix Wright (Gyakuten Saiban) games – which present very bleak pictures of the flaws in the system: an overly powerful prosecution, biased judges and police, and flawed evidence presentation procedures.
Returning to the movie, it is the story of a false accusation of molestation aboard a train. In this crime there are two victims: the woman who was actually molested, and the man whose life is ruined by her misidentification of him as the culprit. It is this man’s refusal to accept this charge that sets him up against the system as Sou masterfully exposes the flaws of the Japanese justice system.
“As a Japanese citizen, I was very angry to find that such injustice exists in this society. But even though I lived in Japan, I didn’t know this, and I think many others don’t know about it, either,” Suo said. “And having recognized this, I couldn’t just go on with life as if I didn’t know anything about it.”
– ‘I Just Didn’t Do It’ questions court system, The Japan Times, Friday, February 2nd, 2007
I can recommend this movie to anyone for any purpose. It is great entertainment as well as a great insight into both the Japanese style of power and the minutiae of the justice system.
To summarise the problem at hand, I want to leave you with the conclusion to a paper by J. Mark Ramseyer and Eric Rasmusen entitled ‘Why is the Japanese Conviction Rate so High?’ (1999):
Japanese courts convict. Courts convict in America too, of course, but in Japan they convict with a vengeance: over 99 percent of the time. Even in cases where the defendant contests his guilt, they convict over 98 percent of the time. Are courts convicting the guilty and innocent alike, or are prosecutors merely choosing the guiltiest defendants to try? Absent independent evidence of the guilt of the accused, one cannot directly tell.
In this article, we pursue indirect evidence on point. First, Japanese prosecutors are woefully understaffed. Tied as they are to a severe budget constraint, one might expect them to try only the most obviously guilty. Unbiased courts would then convict. The conviction rate would
approach 100 percent, but only because most of the defendants were guilty. […]
Are Japanese courts unbiased? Initially, Japanese judges seem to face significantly biased incentives: judges who acquit seem more likely to suffer a career penalty than those who convict. Yet a closer look at the judges punished for their acquittals suggests a classic omitted-variable problem — and returns us to our hypothesis about prosecutorial resources. The acquittals that generate apparent punishment are sometimes cases where judges sided with opposition parties in politically charged cases, and otherwise cases where the judge may simply have interpreted the law wrongly. Never are they cases where the judge decided that the prosecutors simply brought the wrong man. Instead, we know from other studies that the Japanese courts generally reward politically reliability and intelligence — and the observed punishment may simply reflect that broader phenomenon.