U.S. Corrections Leaders Tour Prisons in Europe in Effort to Advance Reforms

NEW YORK—A prison culture that revolves around the idea that life in prison should approximate life in the community so that inmates learn responsible behavior… A system predicated on the assumption that the overwhelming majority of inmates will return to the community… Significant investment into staff training and lack of turnover… Prison programs that allow female inmates who give birth to keep their babies with them in special housing units for a period of time to establish bonding for the welfare of the child...

These are just some of the insights that corrections and justice system leaders from the United States learned from their counterparts in Germany and the Netherlands on a recent information-sharing trip. The exchange was part of the European-American Prison Project, which aims to advance an international dialogue around what works in corrections and stimulate reform efforts in the United States. It was created and funded by the Prison Law Office and is managed by the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera).

Over the past four decades, state sentencing and corrections policies in the U.S. have relied heavily on the use of prisons to combat crime, resulting in the highest incarceration rate in the world. Currently, 2.4 million people are behind bars—743 out of every 100,000 people. Yet research shows that the increase in incarceration rates over the past 40 years has been extremely limited in its effectiveness, and is responsible for only about 20 percent of the crime decline experienced nationwide since the early 1990s. By contrast, Germany and the Netherlands rely more heavily on alternative sanctions with a greater focus on rehabilitation, and have significantly lower incarceration rates: 85 per 100,000 people in Germany and 94 per 100,000 in the Netherlands.

"The Prison Law Office initiated and funded this project to expose prison officials in the United States to a model of criminal sanctions that relies much more on intermediate sanctions, such as community service and fines, and that uses incarceration more productively to rehabilitate offenders," said Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit public interest law firm that has been at the forefront of legal efforts to enforce the Constitution and other laws inside California's prisons. "I am optimistic that this experience will be a catalyst for improving prison conditions so that they are more humane and more conducive to reintegrating offenders into society."

Three state teams from Colorado, Georgia, and Pennsylvania were selected to participate in the project. Germany and the Netherlands were selected as the European counterparts because of their widespread use of alternatives to prison as well as the intensity of their in-prison rehabilitation and educational programs. The teams consist of directors of corrections departments, state legislators, judges, prosecutors, and other stakeholders.

The project has three stages. First, each team convened on site with Vera and Prison Law Office staff to review its systems, aspirations, and challenges, as well as lead tours of its facilities. Then, in winter 2013, the U.S. state teams, along with Vera and Prison Law Office staff, took part in a one-week visit to correctional facilities in Germany and the Netherlands. The trip included tours of facilities and discussions with European correctional officials about successful strategies. In the final stage, debriefing sessions with the state teams will take place in the near future, and will broaden the conversation to a larger group of stakeholders.

"The value of this kind of cross-cultural sharing cannot be overstated—and the opportunity for state officials to learn from each other is tremendous as well," said Michael Jacobson, president and director of Vera. "Already, this dialogue between American and European justice officials has been productive. For example, the benefits of using positive incentives for managing low-risk offenders in Europe was apparent, and some of our U.S. partners are already considering pilots of such practices as mother-baby units for female offenders who have recently given birth."

Responses from U.S. state justice officials who participated in the project demonstrate an enthusiasm for implementing some of the European practices, as well as a determination to continue a dialogue among both the European and American participants.

As John Wetzel, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, said, "We were interested because of our understanding that Europe takes a very different approach to both criminal justice and corrections, specifically as it relates to behavioral health issues such as addiction and mental illness. Since returning, we have identified a group to lead an effort to restructure our mental health system starting by working to re-do the state's mental health act to more closely mirror the German approach. The project has caused us to take a step back and look at our purpose—i.e., to correct people—and will prompt us as an organization to assess whether our practices are leading to that."

Responses were similar from other state officials. According to Becky East, Administration Division Director and Chief Financial Officer of the Georgia Department of Corrections: "The Georgia Department of Corrections is committed to seeking out best practices for operating the safest and most efficient facilities, which is reflected in Commissioner Brian Owens' desire to participate in this tremendous project. The trip has opened our minds to exploring the possibilities of implementing programs that we currently do not have such as the mother/baby program. The exchange of information with our U.S. colleagues was invaluable and we plan to continue to keep the lines of communication open."

"We were motivated to participate in the European-American Prison Project because of the challenges associated with the dramatic increase in inmates with serious mental health problems and substance addictions, and our interest to explore new methods to address these problems," said Tom Clements, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections. "I believe this experience will prove to be a springboard for new ideas to improve correctional services in Colorado with a focus on efficiency and better public safety outcomes."