Written by Sean Larner Evan Ebel was worried about leaving prison — and reasonably so. His last couple years were spent by himself in a cinderblock cell the size of two queen mattresses. Before his release Ebel wondered, in a … Continue reading
Hello Friends. We’re back with our weekly feature–Pick 6. Our Pick 6 consists of 6 informative, insightful reentry & criminal justice-related news articles and commentaries that we’ve been following throughout the week. We welcome your thoughts and feedback, so don’t be shy!
PS. Don’t forget this week only (July 11th-July 18th), Root & Rebound is running its first-ever online auction to raise money for our work across California, drawing thousands of people from across the country and world to bid on incredible prizes—everything from hotel stays to wine country hot air balloon rides, from photographs and paintings to consultations with wedding and home designers.
Visit the site and bid today!
I. READ IT: Obama to become first sitting president to visit a prison (LA Times)
President Obama will become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, part of a push he plans next week for reforming the criminal justice system.
On Thursday, the president will visit with inmates and officials at the Federal Correctional Institution El Reno near Oklahoma City, the White House announced Friday, and will be interviewed for the HBO newsmagazine series “Vice” on the issue.
II. HEAR IT: LA Police Unit Intervenes To Get Mentally Ill Treatment, Not Jail Time (NPR)
“The goal is to make sure that people who are mentally ill, who are not a danger to the community, are moved towards getting treatment and services as opposed to getting booked and taken into the jail.”
III. READ IT: Prison Born (The Atlantic)
“The officer who handcuffed Mayer in the motel didn’t seem to care when she told him she was pregnant. Neither did the parole judge, who charged her with fraternizing with another parolee and skipping curfew and ordered her back to prison. As she stripped down at the intake facility and stepped forward to be searched, she faced the question that thousands of American women do each year: What happens to a baby born in detention?”
IV. HEAR IT: Georgia Leads A Push To Help Ex-Prisoners Get Jobs (NPR)
“In Georgia, Jay Neal thinks it won’t be hard to persuade more businesses to take some risk, because here, one in 13 adults is under some kind of state supervision. ‘Just about everybody knows somebody who’s been in the prison system and knows enough about them to know that they’re not a real threat — that they need help more than they need to be locked away,’ he says. And that they’re no longer ex-offenders, but returning citizens.”
V. WATCH IT: Inside the Shadowy Business of Prison Phone Calls (International Business Times)
Over the last decade, the prison phone business has become a scandalous industry, characterized by lawsuits, exorbitant fees, high phone rates and monopolistic relationships between public jails and private companies that openly offer kickbacks to local sheriffs. In May 2015, Foster Campbell, the Louisana Public Service commissioner, described the prison phone business in his state as “worse than any payday loan scheme.”
“Regardless of what they’re using the money for, this is about shifting the cost of the police state onto the backs of the poor people being policed,” says Paul Wright, executive director of Human Rights Defense Center and a longtime advocate for more affordable prison phone rates.
VI. READ IT: Reading Aloud to My Daughter, From Prison (New York Times)
“After my daughter received her books, I learned that the books I sent to her went beyond her in many ways. My entire family was touched and helped through these books. When my son missed me he too would listen to my voice on the tape. When my mom and dad had a rough day taking care of my many responsibilities, they found forgiveness and hope in the sound of my voice.”
Hi friends. Again it is Friday, so again it is time for our weekly Pick 6! Our Pick 6 consists of 6 informative, insightful reentry & criminal justice-related news articles and commentaries that we’ve been following throughout the week. We welcome any and all thoughts or feedback, so don’t be shy!
From the AP: “John Legend has launched a campaign to end mass incarceration. The Grammy-winning singer announced the multiyear initiative, FREE AMERICA, on Monday…”We have a serious problem with incarceration in this country,” Legend said in an interview. “It’s destroying families, it’s destroying communities and we’re the most incarcerated country in the world, and when you look deeper and look at the reasons we got to this place, we as a society made some choices politically and legislatively, culturally to deal with poverty, deal with mental illness in a certain way and that way usually involves using incarceration…I’m just trying to create some more awareness to this issue and trying to make some real change legislatively.”
Thus far, Hilary Clinton (D), Ted Cruz (R), Marco Rubio (R), and Rand Paul (R) have announced their candidacies for President of the United States. Radley Balko, author of the book “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces,” has strung together a “quick and dirty list of [criminal justice related] questions” that he’d like to see 2016 Presidential candidates answer.
3.) Federal Prosecutor Tries a Radical Tactic in the Drug War: Not Throwing People in Prison (Huffington Post)
“[South Carolina’s top] U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles is testing out a novel approach to dealing with drug-related crime, one that aims to clean up the streets by looking beyond mass arrests and incarceration…If the program’s success continues in South Carolina, it could become a model for law enforcement across the country…Nettles’ plan is surprisingly straightforward. First, federal and local prosecutors identify local drug dealers with the help of the police, probation officers and community members. Next, they build criminal cases against them by reviewing records for outstanding warrants and conducting undercover drug buys. In most cases, arresting all the dealers would be the next order of business, but Nettles has a different idea. While high-level dealers are still arrested and prosecuted, some low-level offenders are given another option. For them, Nettles stages something of an intervention. Together with the police, family members, religious leaders and other members of the community, prosecutors present the dealers with the evidence against them and give them a choice: Face the prospect of prison or participate in the pilot project. The program, officially known as the Drug Market Intervention Initiative, helps the dealers find legitimate jobs and offers them help with drug treatment, education and transportation. The hope is that it provides them with the support and the motivation they need to turn their lives around.”
4.) Driver’s License Suspension Create Cycle of Debt (New York Times)
“The last time Kenneth Seay lost his job, at an industrial bakery that offered health insurance and Christmas bonuses, it was because he had been thrown in jail for legal issues stemming from a revoked driver’s license. Same with the three jobs before that. In fact, Mr. Seay said, when it comes to gainful employment, it is not his criminal record that is holding him back — he did time for dealing drugs — but the $4,509.22 in fines, court costs and reinstatement fees he must pay to recover his license. Mr. Seay’s inability to pay those costs has trapped him in a cycle that thousands of other low-income Tennesseans are struggling to escape. Going through the legal system, even for people charged with nonviolent misdemeanors, can be expensive, with fines, public defender fees, probation fees and other costs running into hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars. Many people cannot pay. As a result, some states have begun suspending driver’s licenses for unsatisfied debts stemming from any criminal case, from misdemeanors like marijuana possession to felonies in which court costs can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars. In Tennessee, almost 90,000 driver’s licenses have been suspended since its law was enacted in 2011…Many defendants are forced to choose between paying court debt or essentials like utility bills and child support. Mr. Seay said his tax refund this year went toward child support debt accumulated during his time in prison and periods of unemployment. For even low-level offenders, debt can make a valid license unattainable…In Tennessee, judges have the discretion to waive court fees and fines for indigent defendants, but they do not have to, and some routinely refuse. Judges also have wide discretion over how much time to allow defendants to pay traffic tickets before suspending a license.”
From The Atlantic’s City Lab: “Last Saturday, a Dominican immigrant named Feidin Santana used his phone to record video of North Charleston police officer Michael Slager firing his gun eight times and killing Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was running away. Slager has been charged with murder. Santana, who is being celebrated as a hero, has since said that he was terrified and thought about erasing the video. He had reason to be afraid. What if police had assaulted or arrested Santana, or destroyed his phone?…[T]he truth is that courts have not uniformly recognized that a right to record police actually exists. Though the U.S. Department of Justice has expressed its support for the right to record, only four federal appeals courts have ruled that such a right exists; others have either not ruled at all or narrowly ruled that no right had been “clearly established.” Until a right to record police is in fact clearly established, some officers will continue to act against bystanders who record them with impunity.” (Related: California Senate seeks to clarify right to video police conduct)
6.) D.C. Council rejects Corizon Health contract after lobbying battle (Washington Post)
Last month, R&R Legal Fellow Dominik Taylor blogged about the deadly consequences of for-profit prison healthcare. Dominik specifically mentioned Corizon Health’s failings in Alabama and in Alameda County, California. Our last Pick this week is an update on Corizon Health and the movement to improve healthcare for incarcerated people. From the Washington Post: “The D.C. Council on Tuesday rejected a controversial health-care contract proposed for the city’s jail after weeks of fierce arguments and heavy lobbying by supporters and opponents. The council’s 6-to-5 vote against a $66 million proposal by Corizon Health marked a high-profile defeat for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who had supported the contract….Contract opponents cast the decision as a victory for inmate care and a rejection of a company mired in legal troubles in other states, including several high-profile wrongful-death lawsuits. David Grosso (I) said that if getting the best possible care for the city’s inmates is the objective, then “contracting with a for-profit, scandal-prone company is not the way for us to get there.”
Report of the week) Stop and Frisk in Chicago (ACLU of Illinois)
From the executive summary of our report of the week: “Chicago has failed to train, supervise and monitor law enforcement in minority communities for decades, resulting in a failure to ensure that officers’ use of stop and frisk is lawful. This report contains troubling signs that the Chicago Police Department has a current practice of unlawfully using stop and frisk: Although officers are required to write down the reason for stops, in nearly half of the stops we reviewed, officers either gave an unlawful reason for the stop or failed to provide enough information to justify the stop. Stop and frisk is disproportionately concentrated in the black community. Black Chicagoans were subjected to 72% of all stops, yet constitute just 32% of the city’s population. And, even in majority white police districts, minorities were stopped disproportionately to the number of minority people living in those districts. Chicago stops a shocking number of people. Last summer, there were more than 250,000 stops that did not lead to an arrest. Comparing stops to population, Chicagoans were stopped more than four times as often as New Yorkers at the height of New York City’s stop and frisk practice. In the face of a systemic abuse of this law enforcement practice, Chicago refuses to keep adequate data about its officers’ stops…This failure to record data makes it impossible for police supervisors, or the public, to identify bad practices and make policy changes to address them.”
Extra of the week) Letter from Birmingham Jail (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)
52 years ago this week (4/16/1963) Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.The letter defends his strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism. King declares that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws, and to take direct action rather than waiting potentially forever for justice to come through the courts. King famously wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (Related: What if MLK’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” Had Been a Facebook Post?)
This week, Root & Rebound’s Spring Law Clerk Chandra Peterson reviews five must-watch criminal justice/reentry related documentaries. Be Informed and Take Action! What’s better than snuggling up on your couch with some popcorn and a great criminal justice documentary? Probably … Continue reading
Dear Readers, Today we want to share with you an insightful interview conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice, with Jody Lewen, Executive Director of the Prison University Project.The interview is part of The Unlocking Potential: Perspectives on Education in Prison blog series, within Vera’s Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project.
Jody Lewen is the executive director of the Prison University Project, an inspiring nonprofit organization that operates the College Program at California’s San Quentin State Prison. The program offers a college preparatory program and courses leading to an Associate of Arts degree in liberal arts. We are so pleased to showcase Jody’s interview as a valuable Board member for Root & Rebound. Also, the Prison University Project is an inspiring community partner who not only made it possible for Root & Rebound to raise funds over the last 6 months, but one who we continue to turn to and collaborate with in improving the lives of those returning to the community from prison and jail.
We hope the interview will impact you – feel free to share with your friends and networks!
Beyond academic achievement, how do students benefit from taking college courses while in prison?
Even after taking just a few classes, their written and verbal communication skills are much stronger. They become more confident. Their self-esteem is strengthened. They have a broader sense of what their professional opportunities might be. They are more able to negotiate complex systems and institutions, both for themselves and for their families—even from prison. They are more likely to be active in their communities and involved in various types of advocacy work. They are more engaged with their children’s education. To me, these are success stories: if the person is healthy and happy and living a productive life.
In what ways is teaching college courses inside prison rewarding for teachers?
For teachers, prison college programs offer an opportunity to serve communities that are, almost by definition, radically excluded from quality education in the United States. It’s also incredibly satisfying to have students who are highly motivated and deeply grateful for the opportunity to go to college! The educational climate is very serious, rich, and satisfying, for both students and teachers.
What challenges do educators and colleges face when trying to implement college programs in prison?
There are massive logistical issues: getting the students to class, getting teachers into the institution, the lack of technology, the simple fact that the institution has completely different priorities and values. You have all kinds of constantly changing constraints on what equipment and materials may be allowed inside. Pedagogically speaking, teachers who’ve taught only in conventional settings are often not prepared to serve students with such diverse learning styles; they may also not be prepared for the range of psychological obstacles that students might grapple with, particularly at the beginning—for example, self-doubt, anxiety, or shame.
Why do you think some people are against access to a college education for people in prison?
The biggest issue is that in the U.S., higher education is considered a luxury. A lot of people are legitimately resentful that they have not had the opportunity to get a college education, and it makes them uncomfortable—or even furious—to imagine that people in prison might. It seems unfair. There’s also the whole ideology of “deservingness.” People imagine that if you are a good person, you deserve good things and if you are a bad person, you deserve bad things. What frustrates me about this perspective is not just that it’s simplistic and moralistic, but that it essentially ignores the question of what’s in the best interest of the society as a whole. Also, Americans who have not been exposed to the prison system directly—people who haven’t been incarcerated, and have not had a friend or family member who’s been incarcerated—often have their own ideas of who is in prison and what they are like. Our culture is very invested in its global, generalized hatred of people who are in prison, and very invested in the thought of their suffering. People think of education as a stepping stone to economic opportunity and as a source of pleasure, and a lot of people don’t want anybody in prison to have either.
What will it take to change their minds?
People need to see firsthand the transformative power of higher education in prison. They need to be exposed to the real live faces, voices, conversations, and stories that will allow them to recognize people in prison as actual human beings. They need to hear not just statistical accounts of what happens when people in prison have the opportunity to go to school. They need to become emotionally invested in the good that it does for the individual’s community, family, and the climate of the prison.
How has the Prison University Project been successful in sharing and changing public discourse around higher education in prison?
Above all, through publications like our journal of student writing (OpenLine), newsletters, and various special events. Strong communications materials are a way to carry the message of the humanity of the people inside to a much larger audience. If you can bring people into a prison through these kinds of materials, in my experience it’s pretty rare that they hold on to their hostility.
What kind of reentry services and resources do students need to be successful once they leave prison?
Affordable housing! People with substance abuse and other special issues need supportive housing. And everyone needs some sort of community—they need people they can really talk to, and ask questions, and ask for help. Also, a lot of people get out and want to continue school but they don’t have the money. We need to start creating robust scholarship opportunities for people coming out.
What are the key takeaways that you think any state/prison looking to create a college program in prison needs to consider?
Prison higher education is an educational intervention and not simply a criminal justice intervention. We do this work not simply to make the public safer. We do it because we are committed to educational excellence, and to supporting the personal, professional, and intellectual development of the individual. What you see a lot in this field are people who want to avoid saying or doing anything that might be politically controversial. They say, “The public will never go for that.” For example, they want to exclude sex offenders, or people serving long sentences, for fear of public outrage. The fact is that a high quality educational program that is open to the whole prison community has the capacity to change the entire culture of that institution. Conversely, programs that exclude academically eligible people for political reasons just build resentment, weaken the pro-social fabric of the prison, and waste precious resources. If we really want to create high quality programs that generate the greatest public benefit, we need to be unapologetically committed to inclusiveness, and we need to hold our ground. We need to keep reminding everyone: we are building a healthier democracy. We are improving public health. Our students’ lives matter. They are human beings.
– The R&R Team
This year, Equal Justice Initiative — a non-profit based in Montgomery, Alabama — put out an impressive report entitled “Slavery in America: The Montgomery Slave Trade.” Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is a world-renowned organization that provides legal assistance to the poor, the incarcerated, the condemned, children prosecuted as adults in the criminal justice system, and communities marginalized by bias, discrimination, or poverty. We appreciate that EJI spent time putting together such a comprehensive and informative report on slavery in America and on reflecting on our past. While some might ask, “Why look back?,” we believe that in order to change our current state of mass incarceration and disenfranchisement, we must understand where our thoughts, beliefs, and laws come from, and how we developed as a nation. As EJI says in its report,
“Slavery in America traumatized and devastated millions of people. It created narratives about racial difference that still persist today. It also fostered bigotry and racial discrimination from which we have yet to fully recover. In learning more about slavery, we can learn more about ourselves, our past, and hopefully, our future. By strengthening our understanding of racial history, we can create a different, healthier discourse about race in America that can lead to new and more effective solutions.”
We cannot talk constructively about criminal justice reform, reentry, and progress toward social justice without first reflecting honestly on our nation’s past. There is no doubt that the United States, which incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation — with an increase in its jail and prison population from 200,000 to 2.3 million in the past 40 years — disproportionately incarcerates people of color. Nearly one out of every three American black men in their twenties is in jail or prison, on probation or parole, or otherwise under criminal justice control. Black men are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.
So we encourage you to reflect on our past, no matter how much we might want to look away, and to think about how America’s Era of Slavery — which lasted more than 200 years and ended only 150 years ago with the Emancipation Proclamation — lives on today in the ways we criminalize, incarcerate, and punish, both inside and outside of prison walls.
For further reading, see EJI’s incredible interactive timeline, “A History of Racial Injustice: The Timeline.” Also check out EJI’s page on “Race and Poverty” and a great scholarly article written by Executive Director Bryan Stevenson on “Confronting Mass Imprisonment and Restoring Fairness to Collateral Review of Criminal Cases.”
–The R&R Team
Back in October, we wrote a Community Member Profile about Alton McSween (a.k.a. “Coach”), our professional mentor and dear friend. And if you happened to tune into radio station 94.1 KPFA at 7:00 a.m. this morning, you would have caught an extraordinary interview with Coach about his transition from San Quentin to living and working in Berkeley, Oakland and challenges and joys of reentry in the Berkeley community. He also speaks to his feelings about the 3 Strikes Law passed in 1996, his feelings on why punitive and draconian laws do not serve as a deterrent to criminal behavior, and why “the penalty should fit the crime.”
You can access the interview with Coach here: www.kpfa.org/archive/id/98844 (beginning at minute 33).
As a refresher, Coach was released from San Quentin prison in April 2013 after petitioning for release under the Three Strikes Reform Act (“Prop 36”), which passed in 2012 in California. His life passion is reentry work and criminal justice reform. Nowadays, you may find Coach at work as a Case Manager and Program Coordinator for the California Reentry Institute; volunteering at the Options Recovery Services’ Saturday car wash; or lecturing at a top-tier law school, sharing his wisdom about the California criminal justice system and reentry work alongside the California District Attorney, judges, lawyers, and other field leaders.
Lucky to know you and work beside you, Coach!
—The R & R Team
A recent criminal case in Virginia has received a lot of press—as it should—because of the harsh sentencing of a 15-year-old boy, Travion Blount, who received six life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole for participating in an armed robbery. Travion’s sentence to six life sentences (118 years) without the possibility of parole is a death sentence behind bars. His only chance of leaving prison is through geriatric release at age 60, an unlikely possibility. No one would argue that this wasn’t a serious crime. No one would argue that a 15-year-old that points a gun at teenagers at a party shouldn’t be punished. But what happens next is up to us.
Sentencing laws are written by people… most of whom have law degrees. Those laws can be encouraged or discouraged by the general public. Here is one opportunity among many to sound off. Should Travion—a 15-year-old boy who committed a serious crime die behind bars?
Slowly but surely, our society is realizing that these extreme sentences do not reduce crime; instead they create mass incarceration of people of color in our country, lead to serious overcrowding in prison and jail, and waste precious lives and millions in resources on keeping people locked up. We have a long way to go in terms of creating a sea change around this issue, and making sure that people everywhere in this country are free from extremely harsh sentences. While some states have changed their harsh sentencing laws, people in this country suffer from “geographical justice,” meaning that where you do the crime defines your time.
Virginia is one of 11 states that still imposes life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles with non-homicide convictions. So two 15-year-olds with the same profile, the same crime, and the same circumstances will be treated and sentenced completely differently by the courts, depending on whether they live in California or Virginia. Is that justice?
At Root & Rebound, we believe in second chances, and we believe that every person should be treated as an individual, with the courts, the board of parole hearings, and other criminal justice bodies looking at their specific life circumstances and character. We take issue with living in a society where anyone is left to die behind bars, no matter their age or conviction. We believe that every life should be valued, and that the solution is not to lock the door, turn our backs, and throw away the key. The solution is to look in the mirror to examine what we, as a society, are doing wrong, and how we are failing our young people, our communities of color, and our citizens with disabilities and mental illness. To realize that we, as a Nation, have a public health epidemic—of violence. To take responsibility for some piece of every crime.
In talking and working with formerly incarcerated people, we spend a significant amount of time with individuals who have committed all types of crimes. Some that sound and are much more serious than Travion’s. We also see these same individuals, when given the chance, become active members in their communities, whether those communities are in jail or prison, or in their neighborhoods when they return to outside life.
Many of our formerly incarcerated colleagues (just a small number of whom we have featured on the blog here and here) take on more unpaid work in a year than most of us could ever imagine. They volunteer their time to support others reentering; they speak to community groups, universities, policymakers, and on various panels hoping to spread messages of hope and change the image of “who is a criminal.” They understand the problem of draconian sentencing laws and mass incarceration in our country from the inside out. They see other options for dealing with social problems. They collaborate with service providers like ours to get as much legal and social support to people leaving prison as possible. They help others give back just as they have. Not only are these individuals totally safe to live free and outside of prison, they are real assets to society, using their own experiences to make our world a much better and more compassionate place in which to live. And part of the reason why we started this blog was to highlight these incredible community members, and let their work and their lives tell the stories of redemption and second chances, and to change the minds and open the hearts of people who come across our blog.
The ACLU has published a report on people with life sentences without the possibility of parole—all who committed nonviolent offenses. The report shares a range of stories—a woman who carried drugs for her abusive boyfriend, a man who stole tools from a tool shed. All of these people were sentenced to die behind bars. To read more about Travion Blount and the devastating outcome in his case, visit the ACLU’s report here.
—The R & R Team
Today we are taking the day off from work for Veteran’s Day, but it doesn’t seem right to let the day go by without posting, to honor and thank all who have served our country, especially the many veterans who live behind bars in our country or with criminal records. This is not a topic often discussed on a day like today, but if we really want to honor all who have served our country, and all who have experienced the horrors and trauma of war, then we must honor those who, struggling with physical and mental health conditions related to their service, all too often find themselves struggling with the criminal justice system as well.
There is a significant correlation between incarceration and the mental health conditions faced by veterans: 40% of veterans with PTSD symptoms commit a crime after discharge from wartime service. As a result, veterans are severely overrepresented in the criminal justice system: nationwide, 10%—1 in 10—of prison and jail inmates once served in the military, the majority in wartime.
As many of you know, mental illness often worsens in prison. There is a lack of adequate treatment in many prisons and jails. Even those veterans without mental illness face significant obstacles reentering society. As we have discussed here on the blog, having a criminal record can make it very difficult to find either housing or employment, and lacking either makes it difficult to find the other, creating a vicious circle. Lack of housing and employment for those recently released from incarceration dramatically increases their chances of recidivism and return to incarceration.
For those veterans whose mental illness needs are never addressed, homelessness may well be the result. One quarter (25%) of the people who are homeless in the United States are veterans. One-third (33%) of homeless men are veterans. Almost all of them (89%) received an honorable discharge, and over two-thirds (76%) experience problems with mental health or addiction.
So today, on Veterans Day, we ask that you take a moment to think about all Veterans—in all corners of our communities, and honor them by thinking about the ways we can better support our incredibly brave men and women when they come home.
To learn more about these issues and to find resources, please visit:
- The Texas Civil Rights Project Justice for Veterans Campaign (with Resource Manuals for Veterans)
- The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans
- The Daily Beast: Why Veterans Become Criminals
- Equal Justice Works Blog: Empowering Veterans by Explaining Expungement
Happy Veterans Day. Thank you to all who have served, and let us hope to be of better service to you when you return home.
—The R & R Team
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.
–The R & R Team