Volunteer probation officers (VPOs), known as hogo-shi, are playing an important role in helping rehabilitate convicts and minors released from prison or juvenile reformatories on probation, and adults and minors who have been placed on probation without going to prison or reformatories.

Although VPOs work under the Justice Ministry’s probation offices as volunteers, they are given the status of national public servants. The hogo-shi system has lasted more than 60 years and been adopted by some developing countries. But work for VPOs is heavy and their ranks are aging. The government needs to extend more support to them.

VPOs regularly meet people on probation and give advice. When convicts finish serving their prison term, VPOs help them find jobs and often become their guarantors. They also visit schools and give lectures on how to prevent juvenile delinquency.

VPOs play an important role in preventing recidivism. The likelihood that convicts released from prison on probation commit second offenses is about half that of convicts who complete their prison terms without probation.

The importance of the hogo-shi system is increasing. Under the lay-judge system, a growing number of courts are handing down suspended sentences that require convicts to be put on probation.

The white paper on crime for 2012 devoted about one-third of its pages to support for rehabilitation of convicts, ex-convicts and juvenile delinquents.

But the hogo-shi system is experiencing difficulty. As of January 2011, there were 48,221 VPOs across the nation and 91.8 percent of the positions were filled — down from around 94 percent in the past. The rate is low in large cities. In Tokyo it was only 81 percent. Furthermore, the ranks are graying, with people in their 60s or older accounting for 77.8 percent of all VPOs.

The government must take concrete measures to reduce the burden of VPOs. Since they usually use their own homes as places to meet people on probation, they and their families shoulder a heavy burden. In fiscal 2012, the government plans to increase the number of rehabilitation support centers to be used as meeting places to 155. Even so, the burden of VPOs remains large because only about ¥1.3 million is provided yearly to each center for operational expenses. Improvement is needed.

In view of the general downturn of the Japanese economy and the shortage of volunteers, the government should consider paying VPOs salaries. At minimum, their operational expenses should be paid in full. The government should also consider increasing the number of professional probation officers, who are full-time national public servants.

There are only about 1,000 such officers throughout the nation or about one-fiftieth of the number of VPOs. The government should also pay heed to the fact that some 70 percent of VPOs surveyed want to deepen cooperation with professional probation officers.

The government should take steps to lighten VPOs’ burden and to enlighten people about the importance of the hogo-shi system so that more people will be willing to volunteer their services.

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