Weekend Reading: Lessons From European Prisons

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Comparison of German, Dutch, and American incarceration rates. Image from Vera Report, page. 7.

Hello again from chilly NYC!

We can’t wait to fill you in on some of the wonderful work we have learned about during our weeklong trip to this incredible city, where reentry work is thriving.

In the meantime, we thought we would leave you with some reentry-relevant weekend reading: A new report put out by the Vera Institute of Justice and the California Based Prison Law Office, Sentencing and Prison Practices in Germany and the Netherlands: Implications for the United States. The report describes the penal systems of the Netherlands and Germany, countries that incarcerate people at one-tenth the rate of the United States, for far less time, and under conditions geared toward social reintegration rather than punishment alone.

The New York Times publishes an Op-Ed yesterday about the report, in which they note that the “American and European systems differ in almost every imaginable way, beginning with their underlying rationale for incarceration. Under German law, the primary goal of prison is ‘to enable prisoners to lead a life of social responsibility free of crime upon release.’ Public safety is ensured not simply by separating offenders from society, but by successfully reintegrating them.”

The Times op-ed also observes a number of critical differences between the United States and these European nations; In the Netherlands and Germany, “inmates are given a remarkable level of control over their lives and their personal privacy” while in prison; “some wear their own clothes and prepare their own meals. They interact with staff trained not only in prison security, but in educational theory and conflict management.” Thus, they are far better prepared for life post-release and for reentry. Furthermore, the courts in these countries “rely heavily on alternatives to prison — including fines, probation and other community-service programs — and they impose much shorter sentences when there is no alternative to incarceration.While the average state prison term in the United States is about three years, more than 90 percent of Dutch sentences and 75 percent of German sentences are 12 months or less.” Notably for our work, “upon release, European inmates do not face the punitive consequences that American ex-prisoners do — from voting bans to restrictions on employment, housing and public assistance, all of which increase the likelihood of re-offending.”

The Times wisely notes that, as many states in the U.S. are reforming their draconian laws and systems of imprisonment, (for example Georgia, Colorado, Maine and Mississippi are all currently reforming solitary-confinement practices), these states should “rethink outdated assumptions” and “would be wise to pay close attention to European counterparts.”

We hope you also take a look at the NY Times article and the original report, and that it inspires you to learn even more about the American system of criminal justice as it compares to others less punitive but more effective, around the world.

Happy reading!

–The R & R Team

One thought on “Weekend Reading: Lessons From European Prisons

  1. Pingback: EXCITING NEWS: Lessons From European Prisons! | www.HumansinShadow.wordpress.com

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