Editorials

Addressing serious recidivism among the elderly

The government is seeking to stop ex-convicts from repeating criminal offenses and being imprisoned again as one of the key pillars of its anti-crime policy. In 2016, legislation to promote efforts to prevent recidivism was enacted, holding the national and local governments responsible for implementing relevant measures. The following year, a plan featuring measures to help find them jobs and places to stay, thus stabilizing their lives and easing their return into society, was adopted by the Cabinet. Government reports released last month indicate, however, that repeat offenses by the nation’s elderly population are an increasingly serious problem that demands attention and action.

According to the white paper on crimes released last month, the number of criminal offenses recognized by investigation authorities in 2017 fell for the 15th consecutive year to some 915,000, while the number of people on whom the authorities took action such as arrests fell for the fifth year in a row to 215,000 — both postwar lows. However, the ratio of recidivists — people punished more than once — remained unchanged from the previous year at 48.7 percent, the worst-ever level. And a large part of the problem is attributed to the growing ranks of people 65 or older who repeat criminal offenses after being released from jail.

Senior citizens who serve prison terms often face difficulties finding employment after finishing their sentences. When they don’t have immediate family members or relatives to turn to for support, some of them end up repeating crimes such as theft and being sent back to prison.

Of the people on whom the investigators took action for criminal offenses last year, 21.5 percent were aged 65 or older — the largest among the different age groups. Those aged 70 or older accounted for 14.7 percent of the total, seven times larger than the figure 20 years ago. The number of elderly people in prison was down 8.8 percent from the previous year to 2,278 — but still 3.3 times larger than in 1998. The number of women 70 or older in jail is roughly a dozen times larger than it was 20 years ago.

What’s striking about these senior citizens doing jail time is their high ratio of recidivism compared with younger inmates. Roughly 42 percent of elderly male inmates have been sent to prison for six or more times, while another 32 percent have been imprisoned from two to five times. More than 40 percent of the elderly women in prison have been there from two to five times.

Data shows that elderly ex-convicts tend to repeat crimes more quickly than their younger counterparts. Of the former inmates discharged from prison in 2013, 39.5 percent of the elderly were sent back to jail within five years — not much higher than the 38 percent among people 64 or younger. But while the ratio of former inmates 64 or younger being sent to jail again within two years of their release was 17.3 percent, the figure rose to 24.9 percent among the elderly ex-convicts.

The white paper highlights the unstable lives that many elderly ex-inmates face after being discharged. In a survey of such people released in 2017 after serving their jail terms, 44 percent of men and 17 percent of women replied that they would live in “other” places rather than in their own homes, in welfare facilities or with relatives.

Another survey of people released on probation between 2013 and 2017 reportedly shows that the chances of repeating crimes is three times higher among those without jobs than those who are employed. As part of its efforts to help ex-convicts find work, the government has offered incentives for employers to register with the Justice Ministry as companies that are willing to hire ex-convicts. The number of such firms across the country is said to have shot up from 12,603 in 2014 to 20,704 last year — although the number of ex-convicts actually hired by such companies reportedly rose by only about 200 over the period. Employment prospects are even tougher for elderly people released from jail.

The government has set a target of reducing the ratio of people sent back to prison within two years of their release to 16 percent or lower by 2021. To meet the target, greater efforts need to be made to tackle the serious problem of recidivism among the elderly — by preventing them from falling into a vicious cycle of isolation from society and repeating crimes. Along with exploring job opportunities for former inmates, more public rehabilitation facilities should be secured to accommodate elderly ex-convicts and ease their re-entry into society.