Japan’s Justice Ministry eyes more flexible use of labor, education to rehabilitate prisoners

The Justice Ministry plans to revise the criminal punishments stipulated in the Penal Code for the first time in its 115-year history, as part of efforts to help rehabilitate inmates and prevent them from committing crimes in the future.

The ministry intends to combine two existing punishments — imprisonment with labor and imprisonment without labor — in the first such change since the code was enacted in 1907. Related bills will be submitted to the ordinary Diet session next year.

Under the revised law, the ministry would be able to assign types of labor that suit different inmates’ particular characteristics, instead of giving them the same tasks across the board. It hopes to effectively rehabilitate prisoners and prevent recidivism through the flexible combination of labor and education.

The two existing punishments are expected to be unified into just “imprisonment,” under which inmates are confined in prisons or other penal institutions and given labor and guidance necessary to rehabilitate their life.

Punishments under the current Penal Code include the death penalty, imprisonment with labor, imprisonment without labor and fines. Imprisonment with labor requires inmates to engage in woodworking or printing.

In recent years, however, there has been an increase in elderly inmates who find it difficult to perform the work. They and young inmates as well are spending more time on labor and less on educational programs and rehabilitation.

At the same time, about 80% of inmates who are imprisoned without labor choose to work, as it is more agonizing to have nothing to do.

According to this year’s White Paper on Crime, released Friday, a total of 16,562 inmates, or 99.7%, were imprisoned with labor last year, while only 53, or 0.3%, were imprisoned without labor.

The ministry’s Legislative Council, an advisory panel to the justice minister, decided in October 2020 on the outline of the new punishment after more than three years of discussions. The ministry has been preparing the related bills.

A meeting was held in late September to exchange opinions with scholars and crime victims regarding the name of the unified sentence. Sixteen proposals were made but ultimately “imprisonment” was chosen, as it is simple and easy to understand.

With the introduction of this new term, all laws referring to imprisonment with or without labor are expected to be revised. This will involve changes in municipal ordinances as well, and a three- to five-year period of preparation is expected between enactment and enforcement.

The ministry will also discuss rehabilitation programs for those who are sentenced to the new punishment.