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Despite frequent headlines reporting heinous crimes, the Justice Ministry’s 2008 white paper on crime provides somewhat assuring figures. The number of crimes, excluding traffic-related offenses, declined for five consecutive years. But Japanese society faces a new problem. Crimes committed by elderly people have been rapidly increasing, although they are rarely heinous in nature. The government needs to fully understand why an increasing number of elderly people commit crimes and implement social policy measures that will help reverse this trend.

In 2007, the police recognized 1,909,270 crimes, a decrease of about 142,000 or 7 percent from 2006, and took action (mostly arrests) against suspects in 605,792 cases or 31.7 percent of all cases, up 0.5 percentage point from 2006. The percentage figure showing the police’s investigative ability rose for six consecutive years after hitting a low of 19.8 percent in 2001.

The number of crimes recognized by the police peaked in 2002 at about 2.8 million cases but declined for five straight years after that. (If traffic-related crimes are included, 2007 saw about 2.69 million crimes, down 6 percent from 2006.) The police recognized 1,199 murder cases in 2007, the lowest in the postwar period, and took action against 1,161 suspects in 1,157 of the cases, or 96.5 percent.

People who died or were injured as a result of crime in 2007 numbered 39,022, a decrease of more than 4,000 from 2006 — or 30.5 per 100,000 people. The police took action against 121,165 juveniles in 2007, about 10,000 less than the year before.

The Justice Ministry takes a view that crime in general has lessened and that the nation’s security situation is improving. But, as it admits, the government and people cannot lower their guard because current economic difficulties caused by the international financial crisis may lead to more crime.

Although the overall situation appears to have improved, the white paper focused in particular on crimes committed by elderly people because that number is far outpacing the increase in their population. While the population of people aged 65 or over has doubled in the past 20 years, the number of crimes committed by such people is about five times that of 20 years ago.

In 2007, the police took criminal action against 48,605 senior citizens (33,255 men and 15,350 women), about five times the corresponding figure in 1988. The elderly accounted for 13 percent of the 366,002 criminal suspects against whom the police took action in 2007 — a remarkable increase from the corresponding figure in 1988. That year, senior citizens accounted for only 2 percent of the 398,208 criminal suspects against whom the police took action. Senior citizens classified by the police as criminal suspects in 1988 numbered 9,888 (6,675 men and 3,213 women). The percentage figure increased almost every year since.

While the population of people aged 65 or over roughly doubled from 13.78 million in 1988 to 27.46 million in 2007, the number of people per 100,000 such people the police arrested or took other actions against more than doubled — from 72 to 177 in the same period. In 2007, 1,884 elderly people also started serving prison terms, more than six times the corresponding figure for 1988.

Very few of the elderly suspects were involved in violent crimes in 2007: 4 percent in battery, 2 percent in assault and battery, and 0.3 percent (123 people) in murder. In contrast, 65 percent were involved in theft and 22 percent in petty theft. A peculiar characteristic is seen in the crimes committed by elderly people. Of those involved in theft, 82 percent were questioned by police or taken into police custody because of shoplifting and of those involved in petty theft, 99 percent were suspects in stealing lost items such as bicycles.

Poverty appears to be driving some elderly people to commit crimes. In a multiple-answer survey by public prosecutors in Tokyo, covering 139 elderly people investigated in 2007 and subjected to legal actions including sentencing, 66 percent of men cited poverty, while 63 percent of women cited a desire to own the things they stole and 59 percent cited economizing.

As Justice Minister Eisuke Mori points out, some elderly people do not have stable housing or employment, are socially isolated and suffer from financial anxieties. The problem may grow worse given that the population of people aged 65 or over is expected to top 30 million in 2024, and to keep increasing for about 30 years. Although financial constraints exist, the government should consider implementing social welfare policy measures that will help stabilize elderly people’s lives financially and psychologically, thereby reducing temptations to turn to crime.

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