On Sunday, bleary after an overnight flight from New York, a group of American criminal justice professionals squeezed into a private room in a downtown Berlin restaurant. They were preparing to visit German prisons and meet German prison officials. The trip, organized by the Vera Institute, a think tank based in New York, is all about studying another system so that we might better understand our own.
From the brief introductions, it was clear that this trip would be as much about the United States as about Europe. Germany’s system of sentencing (15 years is the longest most people go to prison here unless they are demonstrably dangerous) and incarceration (open, sunny prisons, full of fresh air, where prisoners wear their own clothes) serves as a reference point for reflecting on the punitive mentality that has come to define the U.S. justice system.
In Germany, then, we would see ourselves—but through a looking glass.
The American travelers—corrections officials, district attorneys, academics, and activists—represent the variety of perspectives that fall under what journalists have taken to calling the “emerging consensus” on criminal justice reform. There are the guys who run prisons and worry about recidivism numbers. There are elected district attorneys wondering how the public responds to such short sentences. And then there are reform activists determined to see prisoners treated humanely.