Japan Seeks to Promote Probation Officer System at Kyoto Congress

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The 14th U.N. Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice at the Kyoto International Conference Center on Sunday

The 14th U.N. Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice kicked off in Kyoto on Sunday. Japan aims to use the conference to accelerate its efforts to expand worldwide the volunteer probation officer system, among other programs, as part of judicial diplomacy to increase its presence in the international community.

Also known as the Kyoto Congress, the conference is being held to discuss various issues in criminal justice. It has adopted the Kyoto Declaration, which for the first time includes the promotion of efforts to prevent recidivism through public-private partnerships, which Japan is particularly focusing on.

Public-private efforts

The congress is held every five years, and is the largest international conference on criminal justice held by the United Nations. It is the second time in 51 years for Japan to host the event. With delegates from about 150 countries attending, the conference is scheduled to run through Friday.

This is the first large-scale international conference held in Japan amid the pandemic in which dignitaries from various countries are participating. As preventive measures against the novel coronavirus, the conference is being held both online and in person, with the representatives of about 90% of the countries participating online.

In compiling the declaration, Japan focused particularly on efforts to prevent recidivism in cooperation with private-sector volunteers, such as probation officers.

The origin of the volunteer probation personnel system dates back to the Meiji era (1868-1912), when benefactors in Shizuoka Prefecture began support for people released from prison.

Currently, volunteer probation officers are appointed by the justice minister as part-time national public servants, but they are not paid for their services. They regularly meet with parolees and others to help them get back on their feet and engage in activities to raise awareness about crime prevention.

The Justice Ministry has been helping developing countries improve their legal systems since the 1990s. The ministry has so far been involved in such support for 15 countries, mainly in Asia. The concept of the volunteer probation officer system has been exported and introduced in Kenya and the Philippines as part of Japan’s judicial diplomacy.

However, overcrowding in prisons is also a serious problem in many countries, leaving the handling of parolees and other prisoners as an issue that still needed to be addressed for many years. In recent years, some countries have also been struggling with the reeducation and social acceptance of young people steeped in the ideology of Islamic extremism.

The ministry sees there is a global need for probation officers who can support people’s recovery in local communities and has been working to promote such activities along with the term “hogoshi,” a Japanese word that means a volunteer probation officer. It also aims to take the lead in creating international rules to prevent recidivism and to establish “a world probation officers’ day.”

Responding to ‘hostage justice’

For Japan, the ongoing congress has also served as an opportunity to disseminate information about its criminal justice system to gain international understanding, particularly after the country has been criticized as employing “hostage justice” by Carlos Ghosn, the former Nissan Motor Co. chairman who fled to Lebanon at the end of 2019.

At the venue in Kyoto, a booklet explaining the Japanese system in English was distributed to the participants. At an online event, four university professors from Japan and the United States compared and discussed the systems of the two countries.

Monitoring cybercrime

The declaration also stipulates the need to strengthen public-private partnerships, including those engaged in the digital industry and financial institutions, as well as international cooperation against cyber-attacks and other forms of cybercrime.

Based on the declaration, the United Nations will launch efforts to establish a pact on cybercrime. The aim is to promote international cooperation and clarify the rules for cross-border investigations.

However, according to an official involved in the conference, Russia and China are the standard-bearers for the creation of the envisaged pact, and many member states fear it will become a framework to strengthen surveillance of the people in their countries in the name of crime control, or to refuse to cooperate with investigations on the grounds of respect for sovereignty.