The Justice Ministry, concerned about the growing incidence of sex offenses against children, is set to launch a tracking system for convicted sex criminals, perhaps by the end of March. The idea is to try to reduce the possibility of their repeating similar offenses by having them keep the National Police Agency (NPA) informed of their home addresses from the time they are released from prison. The police will be prohibited from disclosing such information.

The system represents a step in the right direction, although details have yet to be worked out. There is serious concern, however, that unless it is strictly managed the system could deter the rehabilitation of released convicts and violate their human rights. That is why justice and police authorities must share only residential information — excluding all other personal data — and use it only for internal purposes.

The kidnap-murder of a 7-year-old schoolgirl in Nara City in November has focused attention on the problem of sex-crime recidivism. The accused perpetrator, who was arrested in December, turned out to be a 36-year-old man who had been jailed twice for molesting young girls. The NPA responded quickly, calling for stronger action to address the problem.

Public opinion in Japan is shifting decidedly in favor of tougher measures to prevent the recurrence of vicious sex crimes. Already criminal law has been tightened to raise the minimum prison term for rape to three years from two years and to establish the new crime of gang rape.

Keeping tabs on where former sex offenders live is a practical step to prevent relapses — a step that officials say will require no legislative action. Still, the sharing of their residential information by law-enforcement authorities presents a number of potential problems. One is the possibility of overreaction.

A “high” rate of sex-crime recidivism is said to be justification for tracking ex-convicts. According to the latest crime white paper, though, the rate in 2003 was 8 percent for rapes and 11 percent for indecent assaults — far lower than the recidivism rate for injurious assaults and extortions (20 percent each) and for thefts (18 percent).

Privacy violations are another risk. A convicted sex offender, once he is released from prison upon completing his term, is entitled to privacy protection. Law-enforcement authorities will do him a gross injustice if they continue to treat him, on parole or otherwise, as if he were still a criminal.

Another possibility is that the tracking system may hinder, rather than help, the process of rehabilitation and re-employment. In-house correctional programs will offer little motivation unless convicts can hope to start a new life after leaving prison. Expectations of social isolation would not only dash that hope but also dampen the desire for self-help.

Moreover, “following” convicts even after their release could affect the lives of their family members who have nothing to do with their criminal cases. This is another reason why the system must be operated with utmost caution.

Beyond that, the question of which convicts should be covered must be addressed. The diversity of sex crimes, ranging from light offenses (groping, stealing underwear) to serious offenses (rape, indecent assault, child prostitution), makes it difficult to draw a clear-cut line.

Other difficult questions remain. Should the system apply only to released convicts? And should they include convicts on probation? What about minors? The inclusion of juvenile offenders as well as adults convicted of minor offenses could end up causing more harm than good.

In some countries, including the United States, authorities are required by law to register the names and addresses of sex offenders and publish these records for the benefit of local residents. This system, however, has been criticized for violating privacy, so its effectiveness is held in doubt. Japan ought to be careful about introducing it.

The NPA is considering a system that would enable police to keep track of released convicts’ addresses on a long-term basis. But continuous tracking raises the possibility that it might create a new police system for monitoring residents’ activities.

There are other effective ways to prevent a relapse — such as counseling and education. These programs need to be improved with more active participation of the specialists in these fields. The task for justice and police authorities is to establish the kind of system that can reduce the social anxiety over the rising incidence of sex crime against children, particularly for parents of young girls.

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