The rapid growth of America’s prison population over the past 40 years is “historically unprecedented and internationally unique,” according to a new report from the National Academy of Sciences.
Since mass incarceration carries a big price tag, America should try to learn from European countries that have vastly different prison systems and as a result jail far fewer people, the president of the Vera Institute of Justice argued in a recent National Journal op-ed.
Criminal justice officials from Colorado, Georgia, and Pennsylvania went to visit German and Dutch prisons last year to see what they could learn as part of the Vera’s European-American Prison Project, according to the op-ed, which was co-authored by the secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections.
Vera issued a report on that visit that highlighted the ways prisons in these two European countries are different from, and arguably better than, those in America.
Of course, America has a much larger population than the Netherlands or Germany, and its prison population has ballooned largely because of the War on Drugs. To reduce its prison population, America can’t simply have nicer prisons. The U.S. has to stop criminalizing drug addicts, and it has to take a hard look at why it arrests so many young, black men.
Still, America does need to improve its prisons to be more humane and to ensure more people don’t keep going back to jail. Here’s what America could learn from Europe’s prisons.
A Goal Of Rehabilitation
Both the German and Dutch prison systems are focused on the ultimate goal of rehabilitating inmates. Germany’s Prison Act even states “the sole aim of incarceration is to enable prisoners to lead a life of social responsibility free of crime upon release.”
The physical space of these facilities — which feature moderate temperatures, ample light, and wide highways — is conducive to rehabilitation, the report notes. One U.S. participant touring a Dutch facility said the prison “screamed ‘therapeutic milieu.'”
The U.S., on the other hand, has focused less on reform in the past four decades and more on a “punitive path,” according to the new report in the National Academy of Sciences, which was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Unlike many other Western countries, the United States responded to escalating crime rates by enacting highly punitive policies and laws and turning away from rehabilitation and reintegration,” that report noted.
One smart way to reduce the jail population is to get rid of extremely long sentences for nonviolent crimes. In America, you can get life in prison for drugs or even theft because of harsh mandatory minimum sentences. The average length of stay in America’s prisons is 3 years.
The Netherlands and Germany use long mandatory minimum sentences far less frequently than the United States does. The vast majority of inmates in those countries spend less than a year in prison.
More Autonomy For Prisoners
Prisoners in the Netherlands and Germany have a “fair amount of control over their daily lives,” the Vera Institute report notes. They get to wear their own clothes and make their own meals, and they’re required to work and take classes. Guards also give them some sense of privacy by knocking before entering their cells. Prisoners have keys to their cells and separate, walled toilets.
By giving prisoners some independence, these European prisons provide inmates with skills they need to survive on the outside. One American official who visited a German prison with Vera noted, “If you treat inmates like humans, they will act like humans.”
America’s prisons require inmates to follow a strict routine that takes away most of their independence. They have to wear uniforms, rise and shower at a certain time, and eat food prepared for them in a cafeteria. “As a result … daily decisions are made for prisoners,” the National Academy of Sciences report noted.
U.S. inmates may become so accustomed to having their decisions made for them that they may have trouble adjusting to their freedom, the report notes.
A Connection To Society
In Germany and the Netherlands, prisoners get to keep many of their rights while they’re behind bars — like the right to vote and to receive some welfare benefits.
Inmates even sometimes get a chance to spend time away from prison. Some inmates in the Netherlands “report” to prison during the week and then go home and spend the weekends with their families so they can maintain those relationships.
In the U.S., family visits usually happen within the confines of a visiting room. The vast majority of states in America don’t let felons vote when they’re still in prison, and people who have been convicted of felonies are not allowed to serve on juries in some states.
Different Treatment For Young Offenders
While America routinely puts teens in adult prisons, Germany treats young people as a special category of prisoner even if they’re over 18.
In Germany, offenders age 18 to 21 are under the jurisdiction of juvenile courts. Those courts are allowed to apply juvenile law if they find the offender is still “developing” morally and psychologically or if they find the offence was a “typically juvenile” crime, according to the Vera Institute. Here’s how Vera described the juvenile justice system in Germany:
The organising ethos of juvenile justice in Germany is that of minimum intervention, in which priority is given to diversion. When sanctions are imposed, measures such as fines, warnings, community service orders, mediation, restitution, reparation, and social or vocational training courses are preferred. Youth imprisonment is a sanction of last resort, the maximum sentence of which is typically five years, or ten years for certain serious offenses.
The U.S. on the other hand, often does not hesitate to lock up minors. New York and North Carolina automatically prosecute 16-year-olds as adults, and Al Jazeera recently reported that 1,200 people around America are serving life sentences for crimes they committed as kids.
America may want to follow Germany’s lead and focus less on punishment and more on rehab for these kids, Vera noted. “If U.S. jurisdictions want to salvage the potential of these young adults — as contributing members of communities — then attention must be paid to responding appropriately to their developmental needs, with an emphasis on treatment, education, and social or vocational training,” the Vera report stated.
Only Rare Use Of Solitary
German and Dutch prisons only rarely use solitary, and when they do, it’s only for a few hours or days, according to the Vera Institute report.
“This policy implicitly recognises the deleterious impact lengthy segregation can have on an individual,” the report noted, “and acknowledges that there are better, more humane ways to respond to rule-breaking within prison.”