"It will be three years later this month since the law to launch a lay judge system came into force. During the three-year period, about 28,000 people served as lay judges or substitute lay judges, and rulings were handed down to about 3,600 defendants.
"A survey by the Supreme Court on sentences given under the lay judge system has found that rulings for sexual crimes, such as rape and sexual assault, resulting in injury, tended to be harsher.
"Before the lay judge system was introduced, the most common sentences for sexual assault causing injuries called for imprisonment of between three years and five years. Under the lay judge system, however, imprisonment of between five years and seven years was handed down most often for such crimes. This appears to reflect lay judges' firm stance against heinous sexual crimes.
"On the contrary, the survey showed more suspended sentences were given in murder, arson and robbery resulting in injury cases under the lay judge system. Such rulings were handed down as lay judges expected defendants to rehabilitate themselves and they took the circumstances, such as fatigue from caring for family members, into consideration.
"Public sentiment reflected
"The survey findings appear to show the system's primary focus of reflecting public sentiment in rulings has been realized.
"A supplementary clause in the law on the lay judge system stipulates that improvements to the system are required three years after its introduction, if necessary. To allow the system to take root, the top court and the Justice Ministry need to play a central role in analyzing the current operation of the system and identify problems.
"As part of these efforts, district courts have taken the initiative to hold meetings in which people who served as lay judges can exchange views on the system.
"During a meeting at the Tokyo District Court on Wednesday, one participant said, "I had a hard time determining a sentence, as I had no expert knowledge," while another said, "I wanted more time to discuss the case." Some spoke of the difficulty of missing work to serve as lay judges.
""[Defendants'] lives are at stake. I can't deny that I thought it was a burden," and "It was difficult to judge evidence. It was stressful."--these are remarks made by lay judges, who faced difficult decisions on whether a defendant deserved a death penalty or acquittal, at a press conference after the defendant was sentenced to death.
"Lay judges need support
"The system is certain to create heavy burdens on lay judges, both physically and mentally. They may need to see graphic and disturbing photographs of crime scenes and other pieces of evidence. Is sufficient psychological care being provided for lay judges?
"A hotline set up by the top court for people who served as lay judges has received about 150 requests for counseling. Counselors and other professionals handle these requests. We hope these people's problems will be analyzed and the findings will be used to improve the system.
"Trials for criminal cases have changed significantly. Among the changes are pretrial arrangement proceedings to speed up court procedures by paring down issues and evidence before trials. We also applaud that members of the public have become more aware of judicial matters and take more of an interest in them.
"It is vital for professional judges, prosecutors and lawyers to commit themselves to making trials easy to understand for lay judges."
By Yomiuri Shimbun (Editorial, 5/18/2012), Link to the article (last visited 5/27/2012)