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Geriatric Jailbirds on the Rise in Japan

Japan has long been known as a country with both a large elderly population and extremely low birth rates. Challenges associated with this imbalance in demographics are now revealing themselves in the country’s penal system, where nearly 1 in 5 inmates is over the age of 60.

This isn’t referring to younger prisoners who have been serving long sentences (and are now old) but rather, senior citizens who have been committing crimes with increased frequency.

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It has been revealed that these elderly crime rates are six times higher than they were 20 years ago. Most of the offenses are acts of theft—shoplifting, pickpocketing and the like. But there is also mention of an increase in violent crimes instigated by those age 65 or older, particularly assault and even homicide. This isn’t to say that murder rates are on the rise in Japan—in fact it’s the opposite, when looking at homicides overall. The same goes for crimes committed by the youth, which have supposedly seen a marked decrease this year. But it no doubt poses the question—what’s prompting the elderly to behave this way with such alarming frequency?

The number one answer for many is that these people have been feeling the pinch from their reduced pension payouts, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is currently stuck between managing the country’s staggering debt while facing increasing demands to fund nursing care and prisons as more of the population ages (and gets arrested).

Such was the case for an unnamed 75 year old Shizuoka resident, who has found himself forced to use more of his savings to cover living expenses. While riding a train one day, he attempted to take the wallet of a drunken passenger sitting next to him. He was caught, and luckily let off with just a warning, after he explained his motivation for the pickpocketing attempt.

Most others are not so lucky. There are countless cases of people being caught stealing simple food items like bento box lunches or noodles, often going to jail for 1-2 years for these offenses. Fumio Kageyama is one of these, having first stolen something at the age of 67. Despite serving jail time, he went on to shoplift again and was caught, admitting that he didn’t care about getting arrested once again. There are many more like him—those who have become even more desperate for the relative security and food that they can receive in jail.

Often in these cases it’s not just a simple matter of money which pushes them into crime so late in life but also a lack of family members to care for them as well as unmanageable feelings of isolation, depression and thus, desperation. So, in such cases there are some who find themselves hurting others or even themselves. In prison, they can socialize (in a limited capacity), receive free healthcare and get into a routine of chores or simple hobbies.

Given Japan’s extremely harsh sentencing for such small crimes as shoplifting, there is the already huge burden on funds needed to take care of these inmates over long periods of time. It costs the country an estimated 3 million yen (US$25,000) per inmate over the course of a year. This cost goes up for older inmates and those with more severe health problems.

To compound matters, a significant chunk of inmates who are released simply don’t have a place to call home and unsurprisingly end up back in jail within a few years.

So what’s going to happen as the elderly prison population grows, Japan’s taxpayer base shrinks, the social security system sits on the brink of disaster and the void of healthcare workers becomes more severe?

Many agree that more than ever, some serious changes in immigration policies are needed as a key component to help Japan get back on track. Sure, some small measures have already been taken to promote tourism to Japan, especially with the upcoming Summer Olympics in Tokyo. However, the xenophobic nature of the country has long held back the easing of Japan’s overall stance on actual immigration, so at the moment things look pretty bleak.

H/T: Bloomberg