The Saitama Public Prosecutor’s Office has created a pilot program to help seniors who have been caught shoplifting as the number of such thefts by those aged 65 and over has surged recently.
Such a rehabilitative program by prosecutors is rare, according to experts, who say prosecutors in Saitama have almost taken on the role of probation officers.
According to Justice Ministry statistics, shoplifters age 65 and over numbered 27,953 in 2013, up 370 percent from the figure 20 years ago. They now make up 32.7 percent of all shoplifters caught nationwide.
Unlike other prosecutors, those in Saitama not only interrogate elderly suspects but also interview them in detail to hear them out on daily issues, such as the stress of being lonely and trouble finding welfare support. Since June, the prosecutors have dealt with 10 cases, out of which they ended up not indicting four of them after discovering the root causes of their problems and resolving them. The remaining six cases are pending.
One of the seniors, who tried to steal food from a store, is a woman in her 80s. She resorted to shoplifting because she could not survive on a pension payment of ¥50,000 per month, and because she has an illness that requires regular visits to the hospital.
She did not know she was eligible for welfare because she owned a home. The Saitama prosecutors taught her how she can apply for welfare, and after confirming her eligibility, decided not to indict her.
The Saitama prosecutors say recurrences of offenses by the elderly cannot be prevented by just indicting them. Their behavior is often influenced by stress, trouble with family members and feelings of loneliness, they said, adding that they will soon tie up with the Saitama chapter of the nationwide group of female volunteers helping convicts who have finished serving sentences, through which member volunteers will start making regular visits to such seniors.
“The program sends the message that the authorities are not giving up on seniors. This encourages them. Support from the community will also help them regain a sense of belonging,” said Tetsuya Fujimoto, professor of criminal justice policy at the Graduate School of Tokiwa University in Ibaraki Prefecture.
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