New York, NY—On Sunday, April 3, 60 Minutes is broadcasting a comparison of American and German prison systems that features American and German political and correctional leaders, along with others, who were part of a bipartisan delegation to Germany led last summer by the Vera Institute of Justice and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
As the bipartisan consensus for the need to reform the United States’ overburdened criminal justice system becomes stronger, many leaders in the field have begun to seek out models of what a future system could look like—and what shift in values would be required to emulate them. The 60 Minutes report is to be broadcast this Sunday at 7 p.m. ET on the CBS Television Network.
With more than 700 per 100,000 people behind bars, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world—more than ten times as high as some European countries like Germany. Sentencing laws in Germany differ significantly than those in the U.S., with a preference for alternative sanctions like fines and community service over incarceration—only 5 percent of those convicted in Germany spend time behind bars. When incarceration is used, sentences are much shorter, and German prisons are set up to approximate life in the community as much as possible, with a central focus on rehabilitation and resocialization rather than retribution.
The week-long tour brought an American delegation of criminal justice leaders—including Connecticut Governor Dannell Malloy; corrections officials from Washington State, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Connecticut; district attorneys John Chisholm and Jeff Rosen; the formerly incarcerated advocate Shaka Senghor, author of the recent memoir Writing My Wrongs; researchers and historians; and representatives from advocacy groups and philanthropy, including Right on Crime, the Charles Koch Institute, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition—to learn from a justice system rooted in the preservation of human dignity. It built on a previous tour in 2013 that brought delegations from Colorado, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. Some of the changes led by Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel that ensued from that trip are also featured in the broadcast.
“In Germany, we saw what a system with the goal of rehabilitation looks like in action,” said Nicholas Turner, president of Vera. “Since then, we’ve seen leaders like Governor Malloy and Secretary Wetzel put into place reforms designed to shift the purpose of incarceration from retribution to rehabilitation. In an era that recognizes that America’s experiment with mass incarceration must end, it is imperative that we revisit what the goals of incarceration are. We have proof that changing the way America incarcerates is possible, and can lead to better outcomes for those living and working in prisons, as well as those 95 percent who will return home from prison.”
Vera President Nicholas Turner and John Jay College President Jeremy Travis subsequently published a New York Times op-ed, “What We Learned From German Prisons,” describing a prison system where solitary confinement is used sparingly and with limitations, corrections officials are hired competitively and trained rigorously, and inmates have considerable freedom in how they use their time. They described the results: “In one prison we visited, there were no recorded assaults between inmates or on staff members from 2013 to 2014.”
Vera has been engaged in a national conversation about safety and conditions in our nation’s prisons since convening the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, which released the landmark report Confronting Confinement on June 8, 2006. Vera will mark the 10th anniversary this year by embarking on an 18-month long initiative, Reimagining Prison. By placing human dignity as the philosophical and operational core of how American jails and prisons are designed, staffed, and managed, this initiative aims to shift the goal and culture of incarceration from retribution to rehabilitation. Reimagining Prison includes a series of public engagement, research, and program events and activities that will culminate in a compelling and actionable new vision and plan for safer, smaller-scale, and more humane prisons that ultimately yield stronger communities, and, overall, a safer United States. Details about the initiative are forthcoming.