Locking up offenders with sentences of 25 years or longer for repeated arrests has increased in the U.S. since 1960. The U.S. criminal justice system has been on a streak for more than 40 years, giving out mandatory minimum sentences to offenders who break the law.
This is starting to change.
“There’s a reason it’s called ‘corrections’ and not ‘punishment’,” said the Executive Director of Colorado Department of Corrections. According to Rick Raemisch, “Punishment doesn’t work.” This is the sentiment of several states attempting to reverse decades of judicial policy.
In his story, June of this year, reporter Christopher Moraff of Next City said several U.S. jurisdictions “are beginning to look overseas for alternative models” in an effort to reverse these policies.
In February 2013, a delegation of correction administrators from Colorado, Georgia and Pennsylvania set out on a fact-finding trip to Germany and the Netherlands, sponsored by the Vera Institute of Justice.
“Both countries have largely replaced retributive and deterrence models with one whose primary goal is reintegrating inmates back into society as law-abiding citizens,” Moraff reported.
Punitive mass incarceration, said Moraff, “is not only exceedingly costly, but since 95 percent of inmates will eventually be released back into the community, it does little to help society either.”
While in the Netherlands and Germany, the delegation from the U.S. saw inmates living in rooms and sleeping on beds, not concrete or steel slabs with little padding. They saw correctional officers knocking before entering the inmates’ quarters, respecting their privacy.
Inmates at these facilities wore their own clothes. “They cook their own meals, are paid for work that they do and have opportunities to visit family, learn skills and gain education,” reported Moraff.
The German and Dutch administrators are committed to keeping inmates engaged in their communities. “Prisoners retain their right to vote during their sentences, and many offenders are given the option of spending weekends at home with their families,” Moraff said.
“There’s a reason it’s called
‘corrections’ and not ‘punishment’”
One delegate on the trip, Kellie Wasko, a former warden, said that while this may seem antithetical to many Americans’ idea of what prison should be, she believes an inmate should maintain contact with loved ones and considers it a critical factor in lowering recidivism.
“We know that one of the primary crimogenic factors that leads to reoffending is a lack of family bonding,” Wasko told Moraff.
A similar type of programming could be especially beneficial for lower-level custody and low-risk offenders in the U.S., Wasko said
The German and Dutch prison experience focuses on rehabilitation. Staffing in prison is composed largely of attorneys, social workers and mental health professionals. In the U.S., prison workers are placed in cellblocks after correctional training.
German prison workers are trained for two years. In Colorado, workers are put on the line in two weeks. Over the next year, the Colorado DOC is going to begin training corrections staff in client-centered counseling techniques, Wasko told Moraff.
“We can’t replace all of our supervisors with attorneys and social workers, but we can start changing their mentality to show inmates that we’re here to advocate for them,” she said.
John Wetzel, secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections, said the department is “restructuring its basic training for officers in an effort to emphasize communication skills, motivational interviewing techniques, conflict resolution and mental health first-aid training,” Moraff reported.
According to Moraff, research shows that nations that favor reintegration over punishment have lower rates of recidivism.
The goal of confinement should not only be about public safety, said Moraff, but also “successful reintegration.” Locking someone up in prison is the last resort in many European countries.
“In Germany and the Netherlands, less than one in 10 convicted criminal offenders are actually sent to prison. In the U.S., that number is closer to 70 percent,” Moraff said.
A third of all criminal cases in Germany are diverted away from prosecution, instead requiring offenders to pay reparations, attend classes or do community service. German courts typically “suspend all custodial sentences of fewer than two years, amounting to a de facto term of probation,” said Moraff.
The Dutch favor fines over incarceration. Since 1980, 90 percent of all crimes committed in the Netherlands, including murder, have a fine as one of several adjudicatory options available.