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Legal Scholars Examine Potential Applications of Successful Japanese Criminal Justice Strategies in the United States

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In a meeting hosted by the Harvard Program on U.S.-Japan Relations Monday, scholars discussed the Japanese legal system, examining its merits and applying its strengths to the justice system in the United States.

The event — titled “Learning From Japan’s Criminal Justice Success” — was moderated by Mark Ramseyer, Harvard Law School Professor of Japanese Legal Studies, and featured John Haley, Professor of Law Emeritus from Washington University School of Law and Visiting Professor of Law at the University of Washington.

Ramseyer credited Haley as the founder of his field.

“John Haley revolutionized the study of Japanese law in the U.S.” Ramseyer said. “He was the first true interdisciplinary scholar with astonishing originality.”

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Haley said Japan had success in its criminal justice system — the numbers of reported incidences of homicides, rapes, injuries, and assault have remained relatively low since 1955, with some fluctuations earlier in the century.

Starting work with Japanese criminal studies in the 1970s, Haley found that the mentality on incarceration in Japan differed greatly from that in the U.S. Haley said Japan utilized a criminal justice system focused less on incarceration than it is on “accountability.”

“Less than 2 percent of all persons determined to be offenders in the courts are ever incarcerated,” Haley said.

Haley also described potential causes — beyond criminal justice strategies — for the low crime statistics in Japan. He pointed to specific societal norms in Japan, such as cultural homogeneity and the pressures of reputation. He said these cultural features likely lead to a more widely-shared perception of law and how citizens affect one another.

After the event, Haley wrote in an email that the U.S. should adopt similar ideals in its criminal justice system.

“The most significant lesson is that offender remorse and willingness to be accountable for the harms caused by a crime should be a basis for pardon. (Reoffending may be punished, however),” he wrote.

Haley’s presentation concluded by contrasting the American and Japanese legal systems, especially in terms of the use of incarceration as a punishment for crimes.

“The American system I thought of as the ‘night’ of criminal justice,” Haley said, noting that the Japanese system was the “day.” “We believe if a crime is committed, there must be a moral duty to punish and punish in relation to what crime was committed. I think that is morally wrong, and I think it is detrimental to society and the criminal justice system. But that puts me at odds with most Americans.”

The Harvard U.S.-Japan Program hosted the event as part of a speaker series. While the speaker series was not planned to respond to ongoing conversations about criminal justice in the United States, Christina Davis, the program’s director, wrote in an email that the content was relevant to current events.

“Certainly as the United States grapples with its own challenging problems related to criminal justice, we benefit from looking at how other societies have built institutions to address common goals for a just society,” Davis wrote.

During a question and answer session at the end of his lecture, Haley emphasized that the societal value of due punishment was the key policy difference between the U.S. and Japan, which influenced the gap in crime statistics between the two countries.

“Americans need to avoid our cultural emphasis on retribution,” he wrote in an email.

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