Saturday, November 3, 2007

As Japan Ages, Prisons Adapt to Going Gray

Japanese 65 and over are the nation's fastest-growing group of criminals.

read more digg story

There are two striking items in this story, aside from the social change occurring in Japan regarding the family and the care for the elderly. First, the penal system has made accommodations for geriatric inmates. Change in America's prisons will have to occur (probably after expensive litigation as we saw in the 1970s and 1980s) because of the "get tough" approach to crime control adopted by the states.

The results of this failed policy include an explosion in the prison population. In essence, we are locking up too many people for too long. Keeping inmates in prison for decades will only add to the skyrocketing costs of prisons. The impact on state budgets at a time when more demands are being made on health and welfare budgets (the first baby boomer just applied for social security) and on education (college enrollments are increasing dramatically) will result in a shift from education to corrections (assuming this trend continues).

The second interesting item of this story is the relatively trivial offenses that these elderly inmates commit to get into, or return to, prison. It appears that the Japanese will have to invest in elder retirement facilities in order to divert this very expensive (but not very threatening) group away from prison.

What can the U.S. learn from the situation in Japan? First, we can see firsthand the effects when a society overcriminalizes certain behaviors. Although we have plenty of evidence on this point in our own country, we may see it more clearly through comparative analysis. Second, we can see the effect of failure to address the problem until it engulfs available resources. In this instance, the failure to provide for adequate care of the elderly is manifesting itself in a prison crisis. A parallel situation in the U.S. is health care - failure to adequately provide for the working poor, children, and the unemployed is rapidly undermining our heath care delivery system. We can also look to the issue of prison crowding and the root cause. Last, we can learn what happens when we create a problem by adopting policy based on ideology and rhetoric instead of scientific data and analysis.

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