The Yomiuri ShimbunPublic prosecutors are working to rehabilitate elderly people and people with intellectual disabilities who repeat relatively minor crimes, such as shoplifting and skipping out on restaurant bills, to help them rejoin society.
In cooperation with welfare experts, prosecutors are trying to secure places at welfare facilities for such people, as well as seeking to get their indictments suspended or receive suspended sentences in court.
Preventing repeat offenses is important to protect the public’s safety. It is understandable that prosecutors are exploring ways to achieve this in keeping with suspects and defendants’ circumstances, instead of just sending them to prison, thereby encouraging them to regain their footing in society.
Since January last year, the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office has recruited social welfare workers as part-time employees to help prosecutors with specific assistance measures.
For example, an elderly man arrested on suspicion of shoplifting was placed in a nursing home after a suspended indictment, as he was suspected of suffering from dementia. More than 350 people have received welfare assistance and medical treatment in the past 1½ years without serving prison terms.
In Nagasaki, Otsu and elsewhere, panels comprising psychiatrists and other experts investigate the degree of disability of each defendant and compile reports that district public prosecutors can refer to when they seek penalties. Sendai and 19 other district public prosecutors offices cooperate with local probation offices and help probation officers find places for suspects to live after they are released.
Such endeavors are an attempt to take advantage of welfare networks and expertise.
No end to repeat offenses
The driving force behind these efforts is the seemingly endless number of repeat offenses committed by the elderly and mentally disabled.
According to a Justice Ministry white paper on crime, the number of elderly persons serving prison terms has been continually increasing, with the figure for 2012 more than five times that seen 20 years before. More than 70 percent of the prisoners were repeat offenders.
A survey of inmates suspected to have mental disabilities shows they served 3.8 prison terms, on average, and some of them had been imprisoned more than five times.
It is hard to say that serving time in prison has led to rehabilitation in such cases. If they have no place to live and work and no prospects for their lives after completing their jail terms, released prisoners will repeat crimes and end up being jailed again.
Severe punishments must be imposed for heinous crimes, but depending on the case, it could be an effective public safety measure to treat elderly offenders or those with intellectual disabilities from a welfare standpoint.
Welfare assistance for repeat offenders would have the additional benefit of preventing the overcrowding of prisons and reducing the costs of operating them.
However, much remains to be done to sufficiently implement welfare assistance. The Justice Ministry and prosecutors offices must cooperate with the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry and local governments to increase the number of welfare facilities that can accept repeat offenders.
The prosecutors must also examine the effects of welfare assistance to verify that recipients can be rehabilitated and that such steps deter repeat offenses.