Volunteer probation officers face uphill battle

As their ranks decline, repeat offenders surge, notably addicts

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Kenjiro Osawa has spent the past 15 years inviting parolees to his Tokyo home every other week for a brief chit-chat to make sure they are managing their lives outside the walls of prison.

A “hogoshi” volunteer probation officer, Osawa, a 68-year-old resident of Taito Ward, says he has lost count of appointments parolees under his charge ignored.

But of all the determined rule-breakers, certain people, he realized, behave extremely well, are always punctual, and affable: the repeaters.

“Each time, they come out of prison wiser and better informed (about) how to conduct themselves,” said Osawa, who runs a printing firm. “But having faith is an important part of my job, so I’m choosing to believe they’re acting truly honest before me.”

Appointed by the justice minister, volunteer probation officers like Osawa have traditionally played a key role in helping parolees smoothly reintegrate into society. But over the years, the ranks of hogoshi have declined, while the country’s recidivism rate has climbed, especially that of drug addicts.

Providing rehabilitation in the community is believed to be effective for some offenders rather than incarcerating them for long periods. The Diet in June thus revised the criminal code to start releasing inmates with drug-related convictions earlier than usual while giving them a longer probation period so they can be rehabilitated with the support of probation officers. This means that probation officers like Osawa are now expected to play an even more important role in the parolees futures.

Critics, however, say the new legal mechanisms won’t curb the recidivism rate unless Japan shifts its correctional focus from punishment to offering inmates more effective treatment.

The recidivism rate among nondrug-related offenders rose to a record 43.8 percent in 2011, according to a government white paper. As for users of stimulants, the rate stood at 59.4 percent in 2011, a recent National Police Agency report showed.

The number of probation officers, on the other hand, has continued to fall over the years, hitting a record-low 47,990 nationwide in January.

Some experts say the downtrend partly stems from the nation’s prolonged economic slump that has compelled many seniors to continue working after retirement age and thus deprived them of enough time to engage in volunteer activities.

Traditionally, many have also given up the idea of volunteering as probation officers as they often face fierce opposition from family members who balk at inviting ex-cons into their homes.

Against this backdrop, the Justice Ministry has been attempting to alleviate these fears by offering up a number of plans.

It has promised prospective probation officers that they will be compensated in the event they’re attacked by parolees while also planning to boost the number of rehabilitation support centers nationwide, where hogoshi with no adequate residential space can meet parolees in lieu of their homes.

But some experts say simply relying on the support of volunteers just isn’t enough.

While the volunteer probation officers play an important role in assuring addicts on parole that they are not fighting their battles solo, “such moral support alone won’t make them fully reintegrate into society,” said Chiba University law professor Hiroko Goto.

Main responsibilities of Osawa and his peers include hosting a semimonthly chat session with former inmates and organizing crime-prevention campaigns. Official probation officers, meanwhile, instruct the volunteers on how to deal with each parolee based on their professional analysis.

But professional or volunteer, probation officers are no experts at “curing” repeat offenders, let alone helping addicts forswear their entrenched habits, Goto said.

She thus went on to question the effectiveness of the recent criminal code amendment to release addicts earlier than their prison term but extend their probation to a maximum of five years.

Targeting addicts with a higher risk of recidivism, the prolonged probation is expected to lead to better surveillance and help deter tendencies toward addiction as they learn to cope with their demons in the outside world, the government has said.

The guaranteed early release, the Justice Ministry forecast, will probably result in approximately 3,000 more drug addicts being paroled annually. The new system is expected to take effect in less than three years.

But concerns remain that the deluge of addicts who are granted early release risks overwhelming a system that lacks enough public facilities and clinics capable of accommodating and rehabilitating them.

Goto warned that merely granting them early release with no promise of adequate social welfare is tantamount to leaving them in the lurch.

As for subjecting them to longer probation terms, Goto likewise charged that such moves miss the point.

“Do they need to see volunteer probation officers longer than they do now? No. What they need is treatment, food, home, and practical skills to survive,” she said.

Goto also pointed out that, in what she believes is a further testament to Japan’s misguided attempt to socially rehabilitate ex-cons — including addicts — the government hasn’t done enough to help those incarcerated secure jobs upon release.

The Justice Ministry has been asking employers nationwide to hire ex-cons regardless of their criminal history. As of April 1, there were 11,044 employers claiming membership in the program. But only 380 of them, or a mere 3.4 percent, had actually employed former inmates, according to a recent survey conducted by the ministry’s Rehabilitation Bureau.

The trend has persisted for years, Goto said, noting most of these employers are in the construction industry, a sector notorious for its accidents and other risks.

In contrast to the nation’s endeavors to stem recidivism, Goto cited as an example the United States, where state-administered “drug courts” use their legally binding influence to make addicts undergo various drug treatment measures.

These include subjecting them to medical therapies and hospitalizing them in specialized facilities. While drug offenders in Japan would face up to 10 years imprisonment, incarceration, at least for addicts, is not always automatic in the U.S., reflecting a difference in the thinking of how to approach the problem, she explained.

Ultimately, according to Goto, even though the latest revision seemingly signals a shift from incarceration to rehabilitation, the government fundamentally needs to do more.

“In order to truly curb repeat offenses, Japan needs to work more on enhancing social welfare for those fresh from incarceration,” she said.