Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Japan works to ensure criminal defendants with mental, developmental disabilities receive suspended prison sentences so they can be rehabilitated in society.

From The Yomiuri Shimbun in Japan:

Lawyers and welfare workers are joining hands to ensure criminal defendants with mental and developmental disabilities receive suspended prison sentences so they can be rehabilitated while living in society.

They have presented courts with specific plans to rehabilitate such disabled offenders as members of society, not as imprisoned convicts, and judges have understood the significance of their assistance plans. Lawyers involved in the movement said legal professionals should deepen their understanding of these disabilities to help devise useful means of rehabilitation.

"I'm really grateful to you for helping me understand myself," a man in his 50s said to the Tokyo-area lawyer who defended him in a criminal trial in summer 2009.

The man's offense was leaving a piece of paper that could be seen as a bomb threat at a train station. He was indicted on suspicion of forcible obstruction of business.

His lawyer sought out a welfare worker after she noticed some strange things about her client. For instance, he told her he committed the crime because "I remembered I had been bullied in the past," and she had trouble communicating with him. She eventually learned he had a developmental disorder.

People with developmental disorders tend to have difficulty responding to unexpected situations and building relationships. He apparently left the note at the station after he was told to move to a different section at his job, and had been struggling to communicate with others.

At the trial, she asked a local support center for people with developmental disorders for recommendations for assistance measures, such as finding him a job that took his disorder into consideration, and submitted them to the court. She asked the man's family to try to understand his disorder and requested a suspended sentence from the district court.

The prosecution had demanded a prison term of 18 months. The court's ruling, which acknowledged the man's developmental disorder affected his motive, handed down the requested prison term--but suspended it for four years.

In fact, the lawyer had defended the same man 10 years ago when he was arrested over a different matter. At the time, however, it did not occur to her he might have a developmental disorder, although she recalled thinking something was odd when she spoke with him.

"Lawyers also have to deepen their understanding of disabilities. Otherwise, we can't help arrange a good environment for rehabilitating these defendants," she said.

A support network for rehabilitation in society is currently being created to help these defendants.

Last autumn, a district court in the Kansai region handed down a three-year prison term suspended for five years under protective observation to a man in his 20s. During the trial, the prosecution had demanded seven years in prison. Kazuaki Harada, a certified social worker and the head of the Deai consultation and assistance center for disabled people in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, said he was relieved when he heard the sentence.

The man was indicted in 2009 on suspicion of robbery and causing physical harm after he threatened a woman with a box knife and demanded her wallet. He had apparently been under pressure at his live-in job and was scolded fiercely by his boss just before the incident.

At the time of the crime, he was experiencing a dissociative disorder brought on by a strong shock. Dissociative disorders can affect a person's memory, awareness or identity.

Harada met the man and his parents many times after he was arrested. He submitted an assistance plan to the court that would allow the man to work in a calmer environment at a company run by a relative, and a local consultation and support center would provide help. According to Harada, the man is still working at the company and is relatively stable.

He said prisons are limited in their ability to deal with the deficiencies and disorders of each prisoner.

"Rather than sending these people to jail and separating them from society, they should receive assistance that fits them as individuals so they can be rehabilitated," Harada said.

"It's not the disability or disorder that causes the crime. If their disabilities or disorders are taken care of and taken into consideration, repeat offenses can be prevented."

Nanko Airin-kai, a social welfare corporation in Unzen, Nagasaki Prefecture, started a program last year that ensures defendants with mental and developmental disorders will receive help at facilities that give training in self-support if they are given suspended sentences. If an assessment panel of social workers, lawyers and psychiatrists determines it is possible for a defendant to be rehabilitated at such facilities, the organization submits its opinion to the court.

In response to these developments, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations is studying a training program for young lawyers to teach them how to deal with defendants with disabilities. The Osaka Bar Association will include lectures on the topic in its training program for rookie lawyers in February.

Prof. Tetsuya Fujimoto at Chuo University, an expert in criminal policy, said putting people with disabilities in prison could be difficult.

"People with disabilities might be more adaptable than other prisoners to the rigidly scheduled life at prison. But they could be confused when they come back to society and find their entire time in prison was meaningless in terms of rehabilitation," Fujimoto said.

"Assistance programs should help those concerned think about what suitable 'punishments' for these people are. Judges and prosecutors should also deepen their understanding of developmental problems," he said.