Photo/IllutrationRyoichi Nakahara, right, chief public prosecutor at the Yokohama District Public Prosecutors Office, apologizes to Yutaka Onozawa, second from left, mayor of Aikawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, at the Aikawa city office on June 24. (The Asahi Shimbun)

A man convicted of assault and theft fled with a knife when law enforcement officials tried to take him to prison after he refused to be imprisoned.

This outrageous fiasco occurred in Aikawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, on June 19.

The fugitive was arrested some 90 hours later, but his escape caused serious effects on local communities, forcing elementary and junior high schools to call off classes.

The incident should be scrutinized from various viewpoints.

First and foremost, the Yokohama District Public Prosecutors Office should be held accountable for allowing the convict, Makoto Kobayashi, to give them the slip and flee.

Kobayashi was convicted by the Odawara branch of the Yokohama District Court of assault, theft, stimulants use and other offenses last September. After appealing the ruling, he was freed on bail. After the Tokyo High Court rejected Kobayashi’s appeal in February, the prosecutors office repeatedly ordered him to appear at its office, but he ignored the orders for as long as four months.

It is difficult to fathom why the convicted criminal was allowed to get away with ignoring orders to appear for so long.

On June 19, a seven-man team of administrative officials at the Yokohama District Public Prosecutors Office and police officers visited the man’s home to escort him to prison. Given his past behavior, it could be assumed that the man might put up fierce resistance.

The question is whether the law enforcement officials were adequately prepared and equipped to deal with physical resistance by the man.

The grossly incompetent way that law enforcement authorities responded to the criminal’s escape is scandalous.

As many as three hours passed before the prosecutors office announced what had occurred, while it took police four hours to carry out an emergency mobilization.

These facts raise serious questions. What did law enforcement authorities think about the risk posed to the safety of local residents, for example? How was the information shared within and between the organizations involved and what kind of decisions were made and when?

An exhaustive investigation into the case should be done to answer these questions and the findings should be published as lessons for the future.

There are some worrisome elements in public reactions to the case. Citing the fact that the convict was out on bail, certain media have criticized the bail system per se as well as how it is operated.

In Japan, it is a common practice for suspects to be detained for long periods with their human rights excessively restricted.

In recent years, however, a series of wrongful convictions and the introduction of the “saiban-in” citizen judge system have led to a review of this aspect of the nation’s criminal justice system. As a result, a growing number of suspects have been granted bail.

We cannot support any move to roll back this progress.

Obviously, effective steps should be taken to prevent defendants in criminal cases from fleeing and disappearing. If a number of such cases lead to disruptions in trials and in the execution of sentences, then public confidence in the criminal justice system would be damaged. The problem requires law enforcement authorities to respond to the changing times.

Currently, there are no legal provisions to punish the act of skipping out on bail. The tools and resources to handle such cases are quite limited.

In the latest case, since the convict resisted the law enforcement officials’ attempt to take him to prison, he was accused of obstructing the discharge of official duties.

If a bail jumper has not committed any fresh crime, law enforcement officials are not even allowed to check the person’s phone records. There seem to be flaws with the system that should be fixed.

In a case that has attracted broad public attention, former Nissan Motor Co. Chairman Carlos Ghosn, who was arrested last year for alleged financial misconduct, was freed on bail under certain conditions including the installment of monitoring cameras in his home.

In many countries, suspects and defendants on bail are required to wear global positioning system equipment for tracking their movements. But there has not been sufficient debate on such measures in Japan.

The question is how to strike a good balance between meeting law enforcement needs concerning criminal investigations and trials and protecting human rights.

This complicated issue requires level-headed and steady debate involving the entire society.

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 25