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Tuesday, March 28, 2000

Compassion, discretion and social pressure key to rehabilitation

Staff writer
LINKING COMMUNITY AND CORRECTIONS IN JAPAN, by Elmer H. Johnson with Carol H. Johnson. Carbondale and Edwardsville, U.S.: Southern Illinois University Press; 2000; 413 pp., $44.95.

One morning a Japanese farmer sees his deranged wife trying to hang herself. Rushing to her side he manages to calm her down. But the moment his back is turned, she again tries to kill herself. Struggling to control her, he slams her against a wall. She sustains head injuries and dies.

In most societies, this man would spend years behind bars. That, however, was not the outcome.

Although the farmer admitted that while struggling with his wife he thought how he would be free of her if she died, the public prosecutor eventually moved to suspend prosecution.

His reasoning? If the man, who was deemed unlikely to pose a threat to others, was imprisoned, there would be no one to care for his handicapped son or his ill sister.

With the support of the local community and the promise of relatives to serve as informal supervisors of his future conduct, the government returned the man to his farm.

At a time when mandatory sentencing and "three strikes, you're out" laws are being adopted in countries such as the United States and Australia, and prison populations are soaring, Japan's incarceration rate for convicted offenders remains remarkably low.

In his third book on the Japanese criminal-justice system, U.S. criminologist Elmer H. Johnson explores the role played by the Rehabilitation Bureau in probation, parole and aftercare and the Correction Bureau's responsibilities in Japan's version of community-linked corrections.

"Community-oriented corrections" describes a system in which "the community is expected to become an ally" of the criminal justice system, working both to prevent crime and to facilitate the rehabilitation of offenders, says Johnson. This system plays a key role in accounting for Japan's low rate of imprisonment for offenders.

A blend of cultural, philosophical and historical factors have influenced the development of this system, Johnson says.

"The Japanese reluctance to employ imprisonment rests in part on a faith that most offenders have the capacity for self-correction without intervention of the criminal justice system."

Japan's renowned emphasis on group consensus, encapsuled in the proverb "the nail that sticks up gets pounded down," not only inhibits social conflict, says Johnson, it also presses lawbreakers to be repentant.

"If the lawbreaker fails to exhibit the capacity (to repent) the spirit of forgiveness is withdrawn. . . . The undeserving felon is shunted off to prison and its meticulous and exacting regime."

The foundation of the system is the wide discretion to suspend prosecution vested in Japan's public prosecutors, even when sufficient evidence exists for conviction, Johnson says.

Article 248 of the Code of Criminal Procedures states: "If after considering the character, age and situation of the offender, the gravity of the offense, the circumstances under which the offense was committed and the conditions subsequent to the offense, prosecution is deemed unnecessary, prosecution need not be instituted."

Public prosecutors don't hesitate to wield this power. In 1993, for example, they suspended nearly 40 percent of the Penal Code cases they received.

While suspended prosecution was first seized upon in the Meiji Period as a means of keeping the nation's overcrowded prison system from being filled with people guilty of petty offenses, now it is primarily viewed both by prosecutors and judges as means to facilitate the rehabilitation of offenders, Johnson says.

"Imposing on an offender the stigma of an ex-convict," says one Japanese expert, "often makes his reintegration more difficult and recidivism more likely."

A public prosecutor agrees, saying, "We must make efficient use of (this discretion) as a kind of community-based treatment of offenders . . . when we get the feeling that (this) is the best way for the correction of offenders."

Underlying Japan's community-based corrections program is a social pattern called "familialism,"in which family interests are placed before those of the individual.

Johnson says that familialism, which has its roots in the "ie" household organization that once dominated Japan's social landscape, still "colors every stage of criminal justice processing." The linkages between consensual community and the remnants of familialism provide "a basis for community-oriented corrections."

Community-based corrections is nothing new in Japan, says Johnson. For centuries, villages have "assumed responsibility for crime prevention and assistance to ex-offenders."

Providing one of many connections between the community and Japan's corrections system is the volunteer probation officer. The job of the VPO is to provide supervision and guidance to ex-offenders to aid in their successful rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

Among the advantages of the system is the fact that both the VPO and the offender usually live in the same community, increasing accessibility, familiarity and mutual understanding.

"The moral influence of these volunteer workers affects greatly the rehabilitation of offenders," says one Japanese expert.

Johnson says that in choosing probation rather than imprisonment, Japanese judges "place a bet that social ties of family and community have the advantage over the deterrent effect of imprisonment in pressing convicted offenders from further crimes."

In his review of case outcomes for probationers as well as parolees, Johnson reports a "very high rate of success."

Unsure of the reason for the remarkably low rates of recidivism, he lists a number of possibilities.

One is the traditional emphasis on maintaining harmonious relationships through the subordination of self-interest to that of the group. In short, ex-offenders are under pressure to fit into society to avoid being ostracized.

A second explanation is that judges may simply be very effective in "distinguishing among convicted offenders those most capable of self-correction if returned to the community."

The introduction of mandatory sentences in the U.S. has put a record number of Americans behind bars but has done nothing to lower crime rates. Critics charge that the system not only wastes taxpayer funds, it also hardens rather than rehabilitates criminals.

While it would be naive to suggest that Japan's community-based corrections system would work just as effectively in a country that has drastically different social values, it would not be wrong to suggest that there are lessons to be learned in Johnson's comprehensive examination of Japan's corrections system.

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