Editorials

Recidivism among the elderly

A law aimed at preventing recidivism enacted by the Diet earlier this month with a unanimous vote obligates both the national and local governments to help prevent those released from prison from committing crimes again. The ministries concerned and other relevant authorities should promptly work out measures to facilitate rehabilitation of these people, who in most cases do not have a job or a place to live when they leave prison.

According to the 2016 white paper on crimes by the Justice Ministry, the overall crime situation in Japan appears to be on a positive trajectory. After peaking in 2002, the number of criminal offenses recognized by investigative authorities has fallen for 13 years in a row. Last year it reached a postwar low of 1,098,969, with theft accounting for 73 percent of the total. Another postwar low of 239,355 people were investigated in connection with crimes. Of them, 48 percent were recidivists. While the number of first offenders declined 6.3 percent from the previous year, that of repeat offenders fell only 2.9 percent.

As an indicator of recidivism, the Justice Ministry examines how many offenders end up in prison again soon after release. According to the white paper, 18.5 percent of offenders released from prison in 2014 were behind bars again within two years. As the government seeks to reduce the ratio to 16 percent or less by 2021, the rehabilitation of elderly offenders is becoming an issue.

The number of people 65 or older investigated in connection with crimes surged after 1996, although the rise has leveled off since 2007. Last year, 47,632 elderly people were investigated, up 380 from the previous year and accounting for 20 percent of the total, a postwar high. The number of elderly investigated was 3.8 times the 1996 figure; the number of elderly imprisoned was up 4.5 times.

According to the Justice Ministry, of 28,558 offenders released from prison in 2011, 11,086 committed crimes again within five years. These figures include 991 elderly ex-convicts. It took six months or less for 40 percent of them to commit another crime. Of the 2,313 elderly people sent to prison in 2015, 70 percent had previously served time behind bars. As many as 871 of them had previously been jailed five or more times.

Generally speaking, offenders of petty crimes may be able to avoid jail by securing guarantors who are supposed to supervise their subsequent behavior. But many of the poor and jobless elderly people do not have relatives they can turn to, making it is difficult to secure such guarantors. This is believed to be one of the reasons why some elderly become repeat offenders. Among them are said to be those who deliberately commit offenses in order to go to prison — which at least provides food and a place to sleep.

The government already is making efforts against recidivism. Last year, the Justice Ministry introduced a system that offers financial incentives to employers who hire former convicts on probation following their release from prison. Thanks to this system, the number of companies employing such people increased more than 40 percent in the year through April. Though the number of such firms is still small, the ministry’s approach makes sense. Of the convicts who left prison in 2011, 49.5 percent of those released after completing their full sentences were imprisoned again within five years. In contrast, the corresponding figure for those released on parole and put on probation was 28.7 percent.

The ministry also helps elderly former convicts as they go through the procedure for receiving pension benefits. It cooperates with the health and welfare ministry to make arrangements while elderly convicts are in prison so they can enter a welfare facility soon after their release. In fiscal 2015, 389 elderly convicts agreed to this arrangement.

In July, Cabinet ministers dealing with this issue adopted a set of measures to prevent recidivism. Noting that 55 percent of elderly inmates had been charged with theft, including shoplifting, and many of them were repeat offenders, the ministers called for beefing up measures to support their rehabilitation after release, including arrangements to enter welfare facilities and bolstering the functions of halfway houses offering food and shelter.

With the enactment of the law for prevention of recidivism, the roles of the Justice Ministry and local governments are all the more important. The ministry should quickly set up a section specializing in rehabilitation of former convicts as called for by the law and work out a basic plan that includes improving education and vocational training in prisons and juvenile training schools, and reinforcement of the probation system.

Local governments, which are supposed to take specific steps under the basic plan, should also take their own initiatives, for example cooperating with organizations helping former convicts in their rehabilitation and encouraging local businesses to hire such people. It is also essential that the public and private sectors do everything possible for former convicts, including providing assistance to those who have left halfway houses.

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