Japan’s First Plea Bargain Raises Questions, Comparisons

In the U.S., the majority of criminal cases are resolved via a plea bargain  — a practice that has been in place for decades. Plea bargains aren’t globally ubiquitous, however; Japan only introduced the method in June 2018 for matters involving bribery and/or organized crime, and the nation’s first case to be resolved via plea bargain made headlines in mid-July.

The case, involving a major corporation and alleged bribery by an employee, is one of only four extortion-related claims seen in Japanese courtrooms in the years since 1998. Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems Ltd., a power plant manufacturer, avoided indictment by agreeing to divulge information on the employee who allegedly violated antitrust laws and exchanged money with a Taiwanese government official.

By opting for a plea bargain instead of taking its chances with a trial, Mitsubishi Hitachi will avoid paying a hefty fine. The maximum penalty upon conviction of violating an antitrust law is ¥300 million, or approximately $2.66 million USD.

The Anatomy of a Plea Bargain

judgeA plea bargain is essentially an agreement between the prosecutor of a criminal matter and the person or company charged with breaking the law, wherein the accused party typically agrees to plead guilty in exchange for leniency. In most situations, the defendant will plead guilty to lesser charges in order to avoid a lengthy trial, hefty fines and/or a prison sentence.

Plea bargains entered into widespread use in the U.S. beginning in 1970, and today they’re used to resolve a whopping 97 percent of criminal cases nationwide, The Atlantic reported in 2017. But while plea bargains effectively streamline the judicial process, the practice does receive its fair share of criticism, as Japanese courts are likely to discover in short order.

Global Variations of the Judicial System

On a global level, Eastern and Western courtrooms often differ significantly in regards to legal policies, including trial procedure. While jury trials are still a reality in the U.S., Japan’s criminal courts employ a judicial panel system, where citizens serve as “lay judges” alongside actual judges.

Other differences involve criminal punishment. For instance, convicted sex offenders may be subject to a variety of repercussions depending on their nation, as well as state or province, of residence. And these localized distinctions can be dubious.

In the state of Wisconsin, for example, the GPS sex offender monitoring program put in place in 2006 was widely denounced for its high cost and lack of tangible results. Similar controversy surrounds the same practice nearly 6,000 miles around the globe in Japan’s Miyagi district, where critics claim that technical issues can reduce the effectiveness of offender monitoring. Additionally, the capabilities of the monitoring units themselves have been called into question, as criminals wearing GPS units cannot be tracked if they leave Miyagi.

But there are a number of benefits to the practice, advocates claim. Proponents of the GPS monitoring of sex offenders believe it can elevate the peace of mind of citizens as well as reduce recidivism rates among offenders.

Further, sex offender monitoring is less costly than incarceration, a vital consideration in the U.S., where prisons are vastly overcrowded. As reported in “Locked Up In America,” the rate of inmates per 100,000 citizens is 760 in the U.S., compared to only 63 in Japan. Among American prisoners, only 6.2 percent are serving time for sex offenses, however, perhaps undermining the necessity of a GPS tracking program for such a small subset of individuals.

Final Thoughts

Time will tell how the introduction of plea bargains will impact the Japanese criminal justice system, or whether the practice will face the same level of scrutiny as the issue of mandatory GPS offender monitoring. Perhaps it will pave the way towards more Western-centric practices across the nation, such as the implementation of jury trials.

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Avery PhillipsAvery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.