Editorials

Help elderly former inmates

The government’s latest report on crime once again highlights the need for measures to help elderly former convicts reintegrate themselves into society by providing them with jobs, welfare services and other support. The higher chances of repeat offenses by those 65 or older — when the average rate of recidivism among former convicts continues to decline — testify to the difficulties that many of them face in finding work or a place to live upon their release. The national government needs to work with municipalities, private-sector organizations and local communities to explore what can be done to support these former convicts, many of whom with few or no relatives they can turn for help, to prevent them from engaging in more criminal offenses.

According to this year’s White Paper on Crime, the number of people 65 and older sent to prison is on the rise — reaching 2,498 in 2016, over four times more than in 1997 — whereas the overall number of people jailed annually has been declining after peaking in 2006, falling to a postwar low of 20,467 last year.

The recidivism rate is also picking up among the ranks of the elderly and is higher than among former convicts in other age groups. Of the 2,498 seniors sent to prison last year, more than 70 percent were jailed for at least a second time, with 922 imprisoned for the sixth time or more.

The government has a target of reducing the rate of former convicts jailed within two years of their release to 16 percent or less by 2021. The rate among those released in 2015 as of the end of last year was 18 percent, maintaining a trend of gradual decline. However, the rate hit 23.2 percent among those 65 and older, up 2.8 percentage points from a year earlier. The more advanced the former inmates are in age, the quicker they tend to commit another offense.

The sheer number of criminal offenses committed by the elderly continues to be high. The number of the elderly caught for criminal offenses last year — nearly 47,000, mostly over petty crimes such as theft — was 3.7 times the level two decades ago. Those 65 and older accounted for just over 1 percent of people jailed in 1991. Their share of the total kept rising and topped 10 percent for the first time in 2014, and reached 12.2 percent last year. Many of the elderly former inmates are said to repeat offenses to get jailed again because they don’t have places to live or work to sustain themselves when they are released.

In a set of measures adopted in 2016 to stop repeat offenses by ex-convicts, the government pointed out that many elderly inmates have no places to return to upon release from prison because their relationships with relatives have become too remote. The measures called for local community-level support for their rehabilitation into society, along with closer cooperation between criminal justice authorities and medical/welfare institutions. In recent years, the Justice Ministry and the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry have been working to arrange for elderly inmates requiring nursing care to enter welfare facilities upon release from prison.

Along with government efforts to assist elderly former convicts with welfare services, public awareness of the need for society to accept them will hold the key to resolving the problem. That will be easier said than done. A government survey in 2013 showed that roughly 60 percent of respondents want to cooperate in the rehabilitation of people who have served prison terms, but only about 20 percent said they intend to actually meet former convicts to give advice and to provide them with continual help.

The number of businesses that have registered with a government-subsidized program to hire former convicts on probation continues to increase, but only about 4 percent of the firms actually employ them. Probation officers who guide the former convicts’ rehabilitation by holding a series of meetings with them after release are limited in number and are rapidly aging themselves. A Justice Ministry survey taken last year showed that about 90 percent of the regional groups of probation officers have experienced prospective candidates declining their requests for them to take up such positions.

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