BACKGROUND: It has been pointed out in Japan that criminal punishment in domestic homicide cases, especially in fatal child abuse cases, tends to be more lenient than in public homicide cases that occur outside the home. In recent news accounts of fatal child abuse cases, however, the media has reported that court-imposed sentences have tended to be stricter every year. METHODS: Using the online databases of three major Japanese newspapers, we collected articles about fatal child abuse cases that had been published from January 2008 to December 2009. We analyzed these articles to determine, whether a tendency towards tougher penalties, as was put forward by the media, actually exists at present time in the criminal system in Japan. RESULTS: We found 24 cases, out of which 20 involved only one offender and 4 involved two offenders. These 28 offenders comprised nine biological fathers, 11 biological mothers, and eight other male relatives of the child victims. We found that the sentences handed down by the court clearly tended to be more lenient for female offenders. A new system of criminal jurisprudence, the so-called saiban-in system wherein citizens serve as “lay judges” in criminal trials involving serious crimes, was implemented in Japan at the start of 2009. Each, district court has gradually adopted this new system after a preparation period of approximately five years starting in 2004. CONCLUSIONS: Many figures in the Japanese media predicted that the gap between social expectations and court sentences for sanction against domestic homicide cases would be filled with the present transitional period of the Japanese criminal system. However, the present study found no significant difference in the laws regarding sentencing in fatal child abuse cases before and after the preparation period of the saiban-in system.
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