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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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The role of volunteers in helping to rehabilitate criminals

Ginga Tamura

Nov. 1, 2017

Many countries struggle to rehabilitate their criminals. In Japan, volunteer probation officers are playing a major role in these efforts. The volunteers are common people who look after criminals on probation. This program originated in Japan, and has attracted much attention. Other countries have already adopted it. Now efforts are being made to get more people to serve as volunteers.

An international conference was held in Tokyo in September with government officials and experts on legal systems from more than 30 countries. Attention was focused on the role played by volunteers. Japan started the system about 80 years ago. Thanks to it, the reoffending rate among those on parole stands at less than one percent.

Teruko Nakazawa, a volunteer probation officer, started working in the program about 20 years ago. She's now 76 years old. Nakazawa is now looking after 5 people on probation. She interviews each of them twice a month and reports back to the local probation office.

A man in his 30s who was released from prison on parole 2 days before visited her. Before leaving prison, he pledged his strong resolve not to reoffend. "Has the man you committed crimes with returned to society yet?" Nakazawa asked. "No, he's still in prison," the parolee responds.

Currently, about 50,000 people are serving as volunteer probation officers in Japan. Many of them go above and beyond what is required. They sometimes help those who are on probation even if it means getting up in the middle of the night, or helping them land jobs. These services are offered for free on a volunteer basis.

Nakazawa always makes homemade meals for parolees. "This is full of my love," she tells the parolee as she hands him a plate of food. "I was a criminal. I used to betrayed people. But now, this meal brings home to me how happy I feel being accepted by someone," he says.

But the system now faces a shortage of volunteers. More than 80 percent of them are now in their 60s or older. It is feared that the number could be reduced by 50 percent in 10 years. "It's really consuming, in terms of both time and labor. Having said that, it's rewarding and I feel satisfaction from looking after them," Nakazawa says.

There's a country that was also facing a shortage of volunteers, and found a solution -- the Philippines. With correctional facilities reaching capacity in the early 2000s, criminals now need to be rehabilitated within society.

The Philippines succeeded in recruiting enough people to re-establish its volunteer probation officer system. The key is various activities which are opened to the communities. Group activities where parolees, volunteers and local residents interact have been introduced, such as sporting events and neighborhood cleaning.

A sporting event was held in the suburbs of Manila. One of the volunteers, Edilberto Viray, found it difficult to deal with criminals one-on-one. He believes that group programs not only help rehabilitate parolees, but also reduces the burden on volunteers. "It's difficult to look after them by myself. Under the current system, officers can cooperate with one another," he says.

Viray is recruiting volunteer probation officers from local residents. Volunteer probation officers and 20 parolees took part in a farming event. A couple of women showed an interest in becoming volunteers. "Volunteers like yourself who take care of 4 parolees... how often do you visit each of them?" one of them asked. "Once a month or twice a month, but more often if it's necessary. But it's a very rewarding role," Viray responds.

"I learned that a volunteer probation officer is an important job," a local resident says about the program. "I hope that more people will participate and work together to help rehabilitate criminals," Viray says.

Thanks to invitations from volunteer officers and promotional campaigns by the government, the number of volunteers has grown from 200 to more than 10,000 over 10 years.

"We have this activities in the public to be able for them also to see the efforts of the other volunteer probation officers. Also, as I mentioned, to entice other people also to join us," says Manuel Co, Administrator of the Parole and Probation Administration.


NHK World reporter Ginga Tamura joins Newsroom Tokyo anchors Hideki Nakayama and Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Shibuya: Why have some countries adapted this system that relies on volunteers?

Tamura: Currently, 6 countries, including the Philippines, have a similar system to Japan. In these countries, many volunteer probation officers are residents of communities where those on probation live. This fact is considered to be important in assisting the rehabilitation process, because they not only look after the parolees, but also serve as a liaison between them and the community.

Shibuya: We heard about the challenges. Are the volunteer probation officers in Japan getting support?

Tamura: Japan's Justice Ministry surveyed volunteer probation officers. Many said they have great concerns about communicating with criminals. To alleviate such concerns, the government opened support centers across the nation. Volunteer probation officers can gather at such centers and share their problems. Efforts are also under way to learn from practices abroad.

Nakayama: Do you think this system is expanding worldwide?

Tamura: Yes. At an international conference held in Tokyo, many countries reported the fact that the role of volunteer officers is expanding. In the Philippines, the officers sometimes mediate dialogue between criminals and their victims to make the offenders realize the seriousness of their crimes.

And Singapore is increasing the number of volunteer officers with medical expertise, so that they can give other volunteers advice in handling people with a history of drug dependence.

Many Japanese volunteer officers also took part in the conference, and said they can learn from challenges the other countries dealt with. I hope the dialogue among these countries will lead to the development of a better system for rehabilitating criminals.