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Editorial: A new model for justice

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 25, 2014 5:00 AM

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It is, unfortunately, not terribly surprising or radical to say the United States has perpetuated a broken and costly system of mass incarceration.

The United States, by far, has the highest incarceration rate in the world — 743 out of every 100,000 American people in in prison; compare that with 122 out of every 100,000 people of the totalitarian People’s Republic of China. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population while accounting for 25 percent of its prison population.

All of this incarceration is, of course, hugely expensive. The Bureau of Prisons, the agency in charge of federal prisons, spends around $33,000 on every maximum-security inmate, and the department’s budget was a massive $6.9 billion in 2013. The U.S. Justice Department estimated that states spend almost four times as much on the average inmate as they do on the average student.

In return for the exorbitant costs of equally exorbitant incarceration rates, the U.S. has been rewarded with incredibly high rates of recidivism. The last large-scale study done by the Justice Department was conducted in the mid-1990s and showed that almost 70 percent of prisoners were reincarcerated within three years of their release. More recent studies by nongovernmental bodies such as Pew Research have shown that 4 in 10 U.S. prisoners are expected to wind up back in prison.

We believe that the current U.S. incarceration system is both clearly ineffective in adequately punishing and curtailing crime and a massive waste of governmental resources while also being fundamentally immoral.

So, the real question is not whether the U.S. prison system works or not, but rather how it’s glaring problems can be ameliorated.

An answer seems to lie with our Western European allies, Germany and the Netherlands, which have seemed to come up with a just and effective system of incarceration. The Vera Institute of Justice released a report highlighting the key difference in philosophy between the Dutch and German systems and the American one. The report states, “The German and Dutch systems are both organized around the central tenets of resocialization and rehabilitation. This is in contrast to the corrections system in the U.S., in which incapacitation and retribution are central and in which rehabilitative aims remain secondary (at least often in practice if not in policy).”

The Germans and Dutch prefer fines and, when prison time is doled out, it is usually far less punitive (the average sentence is under two years) than American sentences (which average around three years).

This is combined with the, as mentioned before, focus on “resocialization,” which includes creating more humane prison environments, with the study reporting, “[P]risoners are allowed individual expression and a fair amount of control over their daily lives, including the opportunity to wear their own clothes and prepare their own meals; and, in order to instill self-worth, both work and education are required and remunerated. In addition, respect for prisoners’ privacy is practiced as a matter of human dignity. One American participant viewed this practice as a matter of common sense, commenting while visiting a German prison, “If you treat inmates like humans, they will act like humans.”

We believe that the adoption of a prison model similar to the one pioneered by the German and Dutch governments would go a long way in repairing a system mired in ineffectiveness, incompetency, and destruction.


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