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What the American prison system can learn from those in Europe

A highly-anticipated report was just released by a group of American public defenders, judges, corrections officials and prosecutors. This group had spent time in Europe back in February of this year studying the penal practices of both the Netherlands and Germany. Each of these nations takes a far different approach to criminal defense, incarceration and social reintegration than the United States does.

The United States incarcerates its citizens at ten times the rate that the Netherlands and Germany do. As a result of this disturbing trend, U.S. officials opted to visit these nations and see what they could learn in order to help improve the criminal justice system here at home. Their report was released earlier this month and is quite inspiring.

If U.S. officials begin to reexamine the American criminal justice system in light of the group’s findings, significant reforms could follow. But reforms will not likely come easily, primarily because the two European nations that the U.S. group visited have different ideas about why they incarcerate prisoners in the first place than American officials tend to.

In Germany, incarceration is not used primarily as a form of punishment but as a mechanism to ensure public safety over the long-run. German law specifies that individuals should be incarcerated primarily “to enable prisoners to lead a life of social responsibility free of crime upon release.” Incarceration is used in order to keep the public safe while providing inmates with the tools they need to live crime-free lives after they have been released.

While the American justice system has been embracing the concept of reintegration resources more fully in recent years, substantial reform and cultural awareness must occur before the U.S. criminal justice system looks more like the high-functioning and focused models of the Netherlands and Germany.

Source: New York Times, “Lessons From European Prisons,” Nov. 7, 2013

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