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Lessons from Abroad

Friday, March 1, 1996

To bring America's crime explosion under control, new prisons and longer sentences will not be enough. Most criminals are eventually released, and most return to a life of crime. In addition to tougher law enforcement, we need to find ways to turn former criminals into law-abiding citizens. Perhaps here, Americans can learn from the success of volunteer probation and parole officers in Japan.

America's current system of probation and parole is a joke. On average, each of the nation's 35,000 probation and parole officers must supervise 100 convicts. With so many charges, the typical officer is lucky if he can find his parolees or probationers, let alone monitor their movements. "Most state probation and parole systems have a serious problem with case overload," says Steve Varnum, the executive director of Justice Fellowship at Prison Fellowship Ministries. "This leads to a high percentage of parole and probation violations, with many offenders returning to prison."

Japan, by contrast, has fewer than 1,000 full-time professional probation and parole officers. These officers are recruited and trained as professionals in counseling, but with an average of 100,000 new qualifying convicts each year, they are too few to counsel clients individually. Their real work is to assign cases to approximately 48,000 volunteer parole officers throughout the country.

Each volunteer on average supervises only two convicts, and his primary responsibility is to help them rejoin their families and neighborhoods as well as to monitor their movements. These volunteers-cum-social workers are clearly getting the job done: Fewer than 4 percent of Japanese criminals who have been assigned to a volunteer officer will commit another crime within a year of their release on parole or probation.

What is the Japanese secret in dealing so effectively with criminal offenders? Part of the answer is the selection process for parole and probation. To qualify for probation or parole in Japan, an offender must show remorse for his crime and meet certain criteria that prevent the release of serious or habitual criminals.

In Japan, acceptance by one's family is often the most important factor in an offender's rehabilitation, for the concept of shame is still alive and well in this society. A volunteer officer visits the offender's home to help his family overcome the shame of having a relative convicted of a crime. If family reunification is deemed impossible, the volunteer finds the offender a place at a halfway house or with friends.

The next step is to help the offender find stable employment, so he may again become a functional member of his community. This is also considered essential to rehabilitation, as the importance of societal acceptance is second only to that of acceptance by one's family. After a residence and a job have been secured, the volunteer officer continues to meet with his charge once or twice a month to provide counsel and to monitor his progress.

An appointment as a volunteer probation or parole officer requires no special training or background; candidates must simply be respected and financially stable. Volunteers come from a range of occupations, but more than half are fishermen or farmers, religious leaders, housewives, and retired people. Ninety percent of the volunteers are at least 50 years old and 80 percent are men.

Once appointed by the Ministry of Justice, a volunteer's term of service is two years, but most are reappointed several times. Almost half serve at least 10 years.

Japan formally authorized its system of suspended prosecution in 1924, and codified the network of volunteers upon which it depended in 1950. Research conducted by Japan's Ministry of Justice shows that the success of volunteer probation officers lies in the individual attention they are able to give each offender; they are often seen as friends or mentors rather than authority figures. Many convicts, moved by the fact that someone has taken an interest in their well-being, feel an obligation to work toward rehabilitation.

Could such a system work in the United States? America would need more than 1.75 million volunteers to achieve the same 2:1 ratio as Japan. Still, small caseload ratios are key to the successful supervision of offenders. "Most criminal activity is preceded by a progression of inappropriate behaviors," Varnum says. "If an agent spends time with an offender and sees the environment the offender lives in, it will be much easier for the agent to recognize the inappropriate behaviors that may lead to the offender's participation in further criminal activity. The Japanese parole model serves that purpose of real time supervision."

It's true that Japanese society, particularly the role of the family, is quite different. Sharing in the public control of behavior, of course, is not unique to Japan. Many U.S. cities have volunteer organizations whose members patrol their communities or teach conflict resolution and job skills. Churches and mosques have begun to welcome and find employment for former criminals. It's time to go further, and experiment with the Japanese volunteer model.

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