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October 15, 2017

"Attorney hopes to import the best practices of European prisons to the United States"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy ABA Journal article from the October 2017 issue. Here is how it starts:

Attorney Donald Specter spent more than three decades working to protect the rights of incarcerated people before he finally saw a prison he believed in.

He was in Europe, having just won perhaps the biggest ruling of his career — a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Plata that required California to reduce its inmate population by more than 40,000. But Specter, executive director of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, wasn’t there to celebrate.  He was a co-instructor on a study-abroad trip about correctional practices with University of Maryland students.

This trip included visits to prisons in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. Specter says he was blown away. The prisons were nothing like those he had spent his career trying to change in the United States.  For starters, they were physically different — built to resemble life on the outside. Inmates had their own rooms and, in some cases, were allowed to cook in communal kitchens.  But what struck Specter most was that the prisoners were treated differently, too.  “They still regarded the people in prison as members of the community who were going to return to the community,” he says. “That has a whole bunch of implications.”

Specter, who began his legal career as a volunteer at the Prison Law Office, had long been frustrated by the limits of litigation to bring about meaningful change.  In Europe, he began to wonder whether there might be a different way to approach his life’s work.  “By the end of the trip, [the students’] basic question was: Why do we have such lousy prisons when they can be so much better?” he says.  “I started thinking about whether the same kind of transformation could happen with people who were a little older and more experienced — hardened correctional officers and the like.”

In 2013, Specter launched the U.S.-European Criminal Justice Innovation Program, sponsoring weeklong tours of European prisons for U.S. corrections officials, judges and lawmakers. He funds the trips using fees from his lawsuits, including some of the $2.2 million his office was awarded after the high court’s ruling in Brown.  In that case, Specter represented prisoners who challenged the delivery of health care in the California prison system.  The high court affirmed an earlier appeals court ruling that overcrowding was the primary cause of the deficient system and ordered the state to reduce its inmate population.

Specter’s first overseas trip was with representatives from Colorado, Georgia and Pennsylvania and included stops in Germany and the Netherlands. Subsequent tours, including one this fall with officials from Alaska, have focused on Norway, which is known for the freedoms it grants eligible inmates.  So far, officials from eight states have participated, including the executive director, president and vice president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators, which has members who oversee 400,000 correctional personnel and 8 million inmates or former inmates.

Although the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world — 676 inmates per 100,000 people, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime — Specter thinks Americans still have a lot to learn about how to prepare prisoners for life on the outside.  (Norway’s incarceration rate is 80 inmates per 100,000 people.)

October 15, 2017 at 11:04 PM | Permalink


Will those include the Italian Death Penalty? It is the same as the German Death Penalty. The Baader Meinhof gang got so depressed they committed suicide, together. One stabbed herself in the heart 4 times. Another shot himself without leaving any powder residue on his fingers. I guess he was capable of that impossible feat after getting a gun into a maximum security prison, another impossible feat. These are nearly impossible feats, by drug addled bunglers. Yes, they committed "suicide," so said the inquest report.

Those superior European are something, aren't they? I strongly support learning from them and adopting their ways.

Posted by: David Behar | Oct 15, 2017 11:51:53 PM

First, let's be clear: the FIRST role for prisons is punishment for the crime. When victims' families are suffering and are most probably undergoing their own financial disaster in conjunction to medical or funeral costs in which they get no relief, no access to communal kitchens in a secure protective environment, while the perpetrator of the crime gets all the goodies so to speak, there is something inherently wrong with not just the system, but the society that perpetuates this injustice.

That said, I'm not at all completely dismissive of the approach in Europe. The part I dismiss, though, is that punishment ITSELF is not experienced when a criminal essentially gets free room and board. This stems from the finite nature of sentencing in the United States in general which has to encompass both punishment and rehabilitation within the same timeline. In the past, I've advocated transforming the correctional protocol to include separate phases of sentencing: Punitive and rehabilative.

To start, prisoners need to undergo the punishment to fulfill the societal compact to victims and for deterrence to potential criminals. This aspect involves full incarceration, with emphasis not on rehabilitation, but on enduring the punishment that society demands of its violators.

However, just as important as the punitive phase, there needs to be an emphasis put on the rehabilitative phase. This is the phase in which European methods would excel. This is also where a variety of different approaches would work, and also one in which there would be more constitutional authority to establish a more fluid transformation between inmate and full citizen.

I just want to make sure that we actually accomplish the "correction" part of the correctional system with pertinent, effective measures, not political points.

Posted by: Eric Knight | Oct 16, 2017 11:51:45 AM

Rehabilitation = Quackery.

Quackery = Stealing Tax Money (a crime).

Posted by: David Behar | Oct 16, 2017 5:23:59 PM

Mentally retarded persons.

Posted by: Claudio Giusti | Oct 17, 2017 10:58:25 AM

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