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Prisoners in Japan serving “indefinite” sentences are locked up longer these days before they get paroled compared with 20 years ago, according to information the government released to the Diet on Tuesday.

The Justice Ministry, in a study compiled at the request of House of Representative member Nobuto Hosaka of the Social Democratic Party, said the average prison time for paroled inmates last year — 21 years and five months — was five to six years longer than in the late 1970s.

Currently, the Diet is conducting debate on a review of the Penal Code, including a proposal to introduce life imprisonment as a substitute for capital punishment.

“The gap is simply too big between a death sentence and an indefinite prison term,” said Hosaka, a critic of capital punishment.

Justice Ministry officials suggest that prisoners on indefinite sentences serve longer prior to parole, because courts these days tend to avoid the death sentence.

“There are more and more cases where criminals who have killed two people would end up with an indefinite prison term,” a senior Justice Ministry official said.

Ministry officials also suggest the Justice Ministry is reluctant to parole prisoners serving indefinite terms because of opposition from crime victims or their relatives.

The Justice Ministry, citing a survey conducted in 1998, said a majority (55.9 percent) of people who are the victims of crimes or relatives of people killed do not want prisoners paroled even 20 years after their conviction.

According to the ministry study, there are 17 inmates who have spent more than 40 years in prison, up from 11 in a survey conducted in April last year. Two of the 17 have served more than 50 years, the ministry said.

The report says prisoners who were released between 1977 and 1988 had served an average of between 15 years and five months and 16 years and eight months in prison.

By 1989, the prison time had risen to 18 years and 10 months. After 1995, the average prison time prior to parole exceeded 20 years, the report says.

According to the Justice Ministry, Japan had 904 prisoners serving indefinite sentences as of Aug. 1. Among them were 32 women.

The ministry said all the 17 prisoners who have spent more than 40 years in prison are men, noting that most of them suffer physical and psychological disorders and have no relatives willing to take care of them after parole.

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