The nation saw 61,534 people incarcerated as of the end of 2003, topping the 60,000 mark for the first time since 1960.

According to the Justice Ministry’s 2004 white paper on crime, released Friday, the nation’s prisons were at 116.6 percent of capacity, the worst figure since the government began keeping records of capacity ratios in 1972.

If the number of new inmates continues to increase at the current pace, the inmate population could top 66,000 at the end of 2007, the report says.

The white paper attributes the growth to several factors, including a rise in the number of people indicted and the tendency to set longer prison terms in response to an increasing number of serious crimes.

This year’s report details such issues as overcrowding in prisons and how inmates are treated after doing their time.

The number of inmates began to noticeably increase around 1995, and rose by 2,000 to 4,000 every year beginning 1999, the report says.

The level of prisoners to prison capacity topped 100 percent in 2000 and has since continued to rise, the report says. The level had remained at around 80 percent or below between 1991 and 1995, it says.

Among the eight regions covered by the report, prisons under the jurisdiction of the Sapporo regional correctional headquarters were the most overcrowded, at 121.6 percent. Those under the Nagoya regional headquarters were the least overcrowded, at 104.7 percent.

Of the 72 prisons and branches nationwide, 64 were overcrowded. The capacity rate exceeded 120 percent at 29 of them.

Conditions for prisoners are now in the worst state in the past 30 to 40 years, and the government should improve the prison system both in terms of its facilities and manpower, the report says.

Fewer crimes in 2003

The number of crimes in Japan fell in 2003 for the first time in eight years.

The 2004 white paper on crime, released Friday, shows that there were 2,790,444 crime cases last year, down 2.2 percent from a year earlier.

The number of people arrested or questioned by police rose 9.4 percent from a year earlier to 648,627, accounting for 23.2 percent of the total crime figure, up 2.5 percentage points from a year earlier.

Of the total, 2,235,844 were theft cases, down 6 percent, the report says.

Police took action against suspects in 433,918 cases of theft, up 7.4 percent. The arrest rate was 19.4 percent, up from 17 percent a year earlier, it says.

The higher arrest rate was attributed to measures including toughened patrols to crack down on a variety of street crimes, including purse snatching, the report says.

Fraud cases skyrocketed 21.9 percent to 60,298, it says.

Of the total, the “Ore-ore” (“It’s me.”) fraud, in which young men call often elderly people and pretend to be a son in need of financial help, had markedly increased to 6,504 cases. Variations of this fraud have cropped up, with perpetrators disguising themselves as police and lawyers to convince their victims.

The report says swindlers bagged about 4.3 billion yen through such scams in 2003.

Murder cases rose 4 percent to 1,452.

Robbery cases grew 9.7 percent to 7,664 cases, the report says.

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