Japan's volunteer probation officers play role in offender rehabilitation. (International).
Volunteer probation officers (VPO) are private citizens who assist professional probation officers and aid offenders of all ages with rehabilitation. VPO activities generally are classified into two categories: rehabilitation aid and crime prevention.
The chief probation officer refers cases to VPO, who:
* Supervise and assist probationers and parolees;
* Inquire about the environment in which inmates in a correctional institution will live after release and address any problems in that area; and
* Conduct preliminary investigations into candidates for pardon.
While professional probation officers are involved in cases as specialists in the treatment of offenders, VPO also work as neighbors to offenders, assisting them on behalf of the community. Further, some VPO make use of their community network to secure employment for offenders.
VPO submit a monthly progress report to the probation office that includes their opinion whether to discharge from supervision or revoke probation, although they cannot participate in the decision-making of dispositions.
In terms of crime prevention activities, VPO are involved because of the Japanese belief that social and community support for offenders' rehabilitation are necessary as part of effective crime prevention. They work in close collaboration with probation offices, the Ministry of Justice and other national and local government ministries and agencies such as the Women's Association for Rehabilitation Aid (WARA) and the Big Brothers and Sisters Association.
Crime prevention activities are carried out both by individual VPO and as part of special nationwide campaigns that continue for one year. Some of their work in this area includes:
* Public relations activities at events such as parades, concerts and exhibitions at which they distribute crime prevention pamphlets, posters and other materials;
* Running crime prevention campaign slogans on television and radio, and placing them in newspapers, on billboards and electronic bulletin boards in downtown areas and sports arenas;
* Attending and participating in public symposiums or forums about juvenile delinquency problems;
* Holding small discussion meetings in local neighborhoods;
* Organizing and supporting activities, such as child rearing classes for young mothers and opening ad hoc child-care clinics, and other community service activities; and
* Helping with fund-raising efforts for rehabilitation aid, such as charity concerts and bazaars, and personally asking individuals and organizations for donations.
VPO are considered critical to the success of these activities because of their high standing in the community and their social and business networks. All these activities focus on residents in the local community and students in elementary, junior high and high schools. Additionally, there is a special nationwide campaign every July to promote public understanding of the importance and process of offender rehabilitation.
Between 48,000 and 49,000 individuals--whose average age is just younger than 64--come from nearly every area of Japanese society to serve as VPO. Nearly half are retired, 15 percent are housewives, slightly more than 12 percent come from farming and fishing environments and just fewer than 11 percent are part of the religious community. The remaining volunteers include government workers, company owners, manufacturers, social workers, school teachers, medical doctors and lawyers. Half of all VPO have been involved for more than 10 years.
Volunteer participation in community-based treatment of offenders is not new in Japan. The Judicial Rehabilitation Service Law was enacted in 1939, providing the basic framework for rehabilitation workers--VPO predecessors. After World War II, there were discussions regarding whether probation and parole systems should be established as professional services. As a result of those discussions, the current system came into being in the form of a combined system comprised of professional staff and volunteer citizens.
The Volunteer Probation Officer Law of 1950 stipulates the purpose of the VPO system; the administration for VPO, such as appointment procedures, regulation for service, and the maximum number allowed for the nation (52,000); their duties; and other relevant factors.
Legally, VPO are defined as nonpermanent government officials, which means they are entitled to obtain national compensation benefits if they suffer bodily injury during the performance of their duties. However, they are not remunerated for their services. The government may only pay the part of all the expenses incurred by VPO in the discharge of their duties. In actual practice, VPO are reimbursed only a small part of their actual expenses.
VPO are appointed to two-year terms with the possibility of reappointment. In actuality, most of them are reap-pointed repeatedly for a number of years because their duties require long-term experience with extensive knowledge and skill regarding offender treatment.
The VPO law requires that volunteers be:
* Evaluated highly with respect to their character and conduct in the community;
* Enthusiastic and sufficiently available to work;
* Financially stable; and
* Healthy and active.
Recruitment and Training
In recruiting VPO, the chief probation officer of a probation office prepares a list of candidates based on the information gathered from sources throughout the community. In effect, the list reflects to a great extent the opinion of VPO association representatives. Further screening is conducted by a VPO screening committee, an advisory committee to the Ministry of Justice that is established in 50 locations, corresponding to each probation office. This committee consists of representatives of the court, prosecution, bar association, correctional institutions, probation and parole services, other public commissions in the community, as well as other respected citizens. The minister of justice appoints VPO from the candidates who pass the screening process.
There are five training courses for VPO:
* Initial training provides essential knowledge and information for newly appointed VPO.
* Primary training provides practical knowledge of various supervision procedures and care of offenders for VPO with fewer than two years of experience.
* Secondary training provides basic knowledge of treatment for VPO with two to four years of experience.
* Regional regular training provides knowledge and a variety of skills involved in rehabilitation services for all VPO.
* Special training provides unique knowledge of treatment methods for various types of offenders for VPO selected by the director of the probation office.
Japanese officials explain that since VPO and probationers and parolees live in the same community, they are able to contact one another not only on a weekly basis (at least twice per month--normally a part of the conditions for probation and parole), but also on a daily basis and at any time in the case of emergencies. As a result, offenders and their families look at VPO as their neighbors, rather than as government representatives. In addition, VPO are in a more advantageous position than are professional probation officers to bring about a change in public attitude toward offenders and in mobilizing social resources.
The VPO system is not without problems. Sakai points out that "since the system for community-based treatment of offenders is part of the governmental criminal justice system, it should provide the same level of supervision and support to all offenders. But VPO, as laymen, are inclined to treat offenders in accordance with their personal or inherent views that have been established through their lives. This might lead to wide differences in the treatment of offenders from one VPO to another."
Another concern is that the average age of VPO is getting older every year--as of April 1, 2001, it was 63.4. At the same time, approximately 70 percent of juvenile offenders under supervision are younger than 20, which produces a large gap in the mind-set between the older VPO and the juvenile offenders. This has the potential to hinder communication between VPO and their clients, thus, lessening the positive impact the volunteers could provide. However, in recent years, interest among young people in volunteer activities has been increasing and new recruiting efforts are under way to attract them.
To help ensure a positive future for VPO, a number of changes are under consideration, including examining the possibility of using semiprofessional volunteers who will assume stronger supervision and enrich various kinds of skills and professional experience in human services could be recruited and assigned to special tasks such as psychological counseling and legal assistance.
The VPO system in Japan has a long and successful history. It remains strong and provides both help for offenders and education to the general public as to the need and effectiveness of community-based criminal sanctions.
Gary Hill is president of CEGA Services Inc., an international consultant in crime prevention, criminal justice and corrections, and chairman of ACA's International Relations Committee.
Author's Note: Much of the following information was provided by Kunihiko Sakai, director of the United Nations Asia and Far East Institute for the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders (UNAFEI), based in Tokyo.