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Could Europe Offer a Model for U.S. Corrections?
By Robert Winters, JD, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Purdue Global University
Published: 11/23/2015

Prison guard tower The combination of shrinking state and federal budgets, a burgeoning prison population, and uncertainty about whether relatively harsh sentencing and incarceration are actually reducing crime rates has many on both the left and the right questioning whether the U.S. approach to corrections is the right one. It is no secret that the U.S. has the world’s highest incarceration rate—approximately 716 inmates per 100,000 population in 2013 based on data from the International Centre for Prison Studies. The next-highest rate among developed nations is 223 for Israel. At the end of 2012, if offenders at all levels including city and county jails are included, the U.S. prison population represented 25 percent of the world’s total.

Unfortunately, the U.S. is also high on the list when it comes to recidivism rates—68 percent of offenders are re-incarcerated within three years according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This disconnect between extensive (and expensive) incarceration and successful rehabilitation is a fundamental problem if we accept the commonly-held notion that insanity can be defined as doing the same thing again and again while expecting different results. There is an unusual degree of agreement between public figures on the left and the right that the U.S. criminal justice system needs to change. Individuals and groups as ideologically divergent as the Koch brothers, FreedomWorks, the ACLU, and the Center for American Progress came together to form the Coalition for Public Safety in February 2015 with the stated goal of reforming the system.

Much of the coalition’s agenda is not new. It favors juvenile justice reform, relaxing mandatory minimum sentencing standards, diverting more mentally ill and chemically-dependent offenders into alternative programs for treatment, and a number of other changes already widely discussed. Many argue that the relative harshness of U.S. prison conditions (relative to the developed world; this is not a comparison to Third World prisons) are an impediment to rehabilitation and improved public safety, not a path to those ends. The European model, by contrast, is drastically different and has produced drastically different results.

Scandinavian countries in many cases use “open prisons.” These facilities have no perimeter fences and cellblocks that resemble college dorm rooms more than anything else. Amenities such as televisions, sound systems, and small refrigerators are available, although inmates must rent them. Offenders wear street clothes rather than uniforms.

The maximum-security Halden facility in Norway sits on 75 acres surrounded by forest—but no walls or fences. Suomenlinna Island in Finland houses offenders with convictions that include assault and murder, but all 95 inmates leave the facility daily to work or study on the mainland or in town. Not every facility in these countries is open; there are prisons that are much more conventional in design, though not necessarily in function.

There are, of course, fundamental differences between European countries in general and the U.S. First, the prison populations are far smaller. Sweden’s entire inmate population is 6,900, which is less than the populations of several U.S. prisons. (Scandinavian incarceration rates tend to be about one-tenth those of the U.S.; Norway’s rate is 75, one of the lowest in Europe.) Second, these countries tend to have relatively homogenous populations. While the question is politically charged, social science research has tended to indicate that it is much easier to vote for (or pressure politicians to implement) increasingly punitive responses to crime when the hypothetical criminal looks more like “them” and less like “me.” In fact, this theory was specifically advanced by Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie in 1993, who added that this social distance also tends to increase the range of acts classified as crimes. Populations that are more homogenous—like those of Scandinavia—tend to “institutionalize mercy” and have less punitive corrections systems.

It is difficult to argue with results. Despite having much lower incarceration rates and fundamentally different corrections practices, Scandinavian countries have recidivism rates in the 20 to 30 percent range. Research has also suggested that incarceration rates and crime rates are not directly related. Between 1999 and 2009 the state of New York reduced its prison population by 20 percent but also experienced a 29 percent drop in crime rates. Conversely, between 2000 and 2010 Indiana’s prison population increased by 45 percent while the state experienced a reduction in crime rates of 0.8 percent (that’s eight-tenths of one percent).

Germany’s prison system is very similar, with dormitory-style rooms for inmates decorated with personal items such as photos, plants, and even linens brought from home. Bathrooms are private, and the offenders have access to a communal kitchen if they choose to cook their own food (which they must purchase with their own funds). Some are open facilities such as those previously described, but even closed facilities allow inmates to leave for visits with family a few times a year.

One technique that Germany and other countries use to reduce incarceration rates is a heavier reliance on fines as criminal penalties. Typically these fines are proportionate to income so that they are neither too onerous for the poor nor too trivial for the wealthy. Over 80 percent of convicted criminals in Germany are fined; only about five percent are incarcerated. Sentences are less than two years in 70 percent of cases, and sentences in excess of 15 years are uncommon.

Additionally, European prison systems do not offer work as an option; inmates are required to work, at pay rates ranging from about $5.30 to $9.50 an hour in Finland. Education is also required. The focus is much more on rehabilitation than on punishment, and officers provide both security and rehabilitative roles. For example, Scandinavian prisons assign a “contact officer” to each inmate who is responsible for monitoring and assisting that offender’s progress toward release and successful functioning in society afterwards. Recidivism is not the only benefit, either; European correctional officers do not face the extensive stress and related effects such as higher rates of alcoholism and suicide and reduced life expectancy seen in the U.S. system.

The European system is not cheap—a Halden inmate costs about $93,000 annually or triple the U.S. average—nor is it perfect, but it does seem to have many positive qualities. U.S. criminal justice officials have been closely examining those systems to learn what aspects we could import.

Corrections.com author, Robert Winters, holds a Juris Doctorate degree and is a Professor with Kaplan University. He is also a member of the National Criminal Justice Association and serves as a Western Regional Representative, a member of the National Advisory Board and their National Elections Committee.

Other articles by Winters


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  2. Benny on 12/09/2015:

    In Europe we not only (like in Germany) give fines or use other measures to keep inmates out of prisons. There is a whole new approach as to how to treat prisoners in jail so they have at least a stable basis when they come out and don't fall into crime again. We are now getting the results and they are very promising as recidivism is going down and rehabilitation is a success. Key words for this approach are normalization: where life in normal society is copied into prison - they get a 9-5 job or follow courses during day time with the goal to achieve a certification or prepare them for work, in the evenings they can have normal contacts with family or relatives with or without the aid of technology or they can have leisure time,... Another key approach is differentiation in regime: you don't need to treat all your prisoners the same way during their stay in prison. Some are more dangerous and need to have more security, others can be fully trusted and can live in open prisons as you mentioned in your article. To my opinion technology is vital as a tool to accomplish this. I used to work for the Justice department in Belgium for many many years and we developped (together with a private company) a solution called PrisonCloud which is a service delivery platform for inmates. On this platform many different services run to support this kind of approach. Together with a new mind set I'm convinced it could work in the US as well.

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