Recognized globally for helping rebuild lives, Japan’s volunteer probation officers face challenges of social change


For over a decade, retired elementary school teacher Kimiko Iino has been involved in the rehabilitation of offenders, regularly inviting them into her home to provide guidance on probation rules and to listen to their concerns.

Iino, a volunteer probation officer and president of the Noda Probation District VPOs’ Association in Chiba Prefecture, shared her experiences recently at the Third World Congress on Probation.

The congress, held in Tokyo in September, is the largest forum in the field, gathering policymakers, professionals and researchers from around the world. The event this year was the first to be held in Asia.

Among the experiences Iino shared with attendees was her work with a 16-year-old boy who was put on probation by a family court after stealing a motorcycle and riding it without a license. He was also later sent to a juvenile correctional facility for causing injury to an acquaintance, but was able to get his life back on track with help from Iino and others.

Several years later he visited Iino to thank her for helping him through tough times.

“At that moment, I truly felt I was rewarded in serving as a VPO, as well as (through) the joy of encountering him through VPO work,” Iino said.

While the work of Japan’s volunteer probation officers has received praise from overseas experts, the system faces mounting challenges due to social changes in the country such as the aging population.

Japan’s offender rehabilitation system has benefited significantly from the support of ordinary citizens within communities, especially those who take on the role of VPO — known as hogoshi in Japanese. Regular and volunteer probation officers cooperate to supervise and guide offenders and juvenile offenders so they might become independent and productive members of society.

The VPOs, appointed by the justice minister, are part-time national public officers but receive no salary (expenses they incur while performing the role are wholly or partially reimbursed).

Their duties include meeting with offenders on probation two or three times a month, at home or elsewhere, and providing guidance to ensure individuals comply with their probation conditions.

In recent years the proportion of arrests involving repeat offenders has been on the rise in Japan, according to the Justice Ministry, and community correction is regarded as key to turning the tide.

Last year in Japan a system took effect to partially suspend — for one to five years — prison terms that do not exceed three years, as part of an effort to improve in-community rehabilitation and prevent recidivism.

Scott Taylor, director of the Department of Community Justice of Multnomah County in Oregon, and Lusanne Green, association coordinator of the International Community Corrections Association in Ohio, shared their thoughts after listening to stories about VPOs on the first day of the conference.

“Our belief is (that) public safety is increased when we can change behavior,” Taylor told the group during a visit to a Buddhist temple in the capital. “This model would seem to make the community much more invested in that change, and the community is actually safer because there are all sorts of people paying attention and caring,” he added.

Their visit was part of a study tour program alongside the three-day conference, which focused on the theme of “Development of Probation and the Role of the Community.”

“The biggest challenge is to get probationers to show up for home interviews,” said Toshio Aitani, head of the Adachi Probation District VPOs’ Association and head priest at the temple. “Some of them are noncompliant. Some tougher cases also involve drug offenders.”

Erika Preuitt, president of the American Probation and Parole Association, said it was a great experience for her to visit volunteer probation officers in Japan.

She came to realize “how powerful it must be to be a person coming out of a prison system or being sentenced to probation and then having a community welcome you with open arms,” she said in an interview during the conference.

“Someone might invite you into their home, and to feel that community wants you back and they want to help you — to me, that’s something that we can learn from,” she said, although both Taylor and Preuitt acknowledged that cultural differences in U.S. communities might make it more difficult to implement the same scheme at home.

In Multnomah County, different types of robust programs are offered in which volunteers handle duties other than actual interactions with probationers or parolees, according to Taylor.

Though the VPO scheme has seen criticism at times, due to a perception that it is “soft” on offenders, it has had a major influence on probation services in other parts of Asia, including the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

At home in Japan, however, the number of volunteer probation officers is on the decline as ties among communities weaken.

As of Jan. 1, the total number of VPOs in the country was 47,909, dropping from 48,851 in 2010, with those involved having an average age of 65, according to the ministry.

Frank Porporino, senior partner of T3 Associates Training and Consulting Inc. in Canada, which is involved in providing services to improve adult and juvenile criminal justice, said, “Clearly, Japan is doing something right that we could all perhaps learn from,” noting that Japan is known for its safety.

Although he sees the VPO system as self-sustaining, Porporino also knows the country’s VPO pool is rapidly aging and that the recruitment of new officers is becoming difficult.

In a recent paper, Porporino suggested that recruitment of VPOs needs to adapt and adjust to changes in Japanese society, so that the continuing demographic trends do not jeopardize the scheme’s vitality and effectiveness.

It would be a “great idea to further enhance the cooperation with universities to attract more young people,” he said, while acknowledging the advantages of having VPOs who are advanced in years for the valuable life experience they can pass on.

Despite these challenges, Iino remains determined. “I will continue my effort to grow as a person, and stand by their side to provide warm support so that they will not commit crimes again,” she said.

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