Norway and Germany Compared to US in Incarceration Essay

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Sentencing in the US versus in Germany and the Netherlands

There is one major difference between the sentencing and corrections policies of the US and the sentencing and corrections policies of Germany and the Netherlands. The former bases its policy on the ideas of retribution and incapacitation, whereas the latter base their policies on the ideas of rehabilitation and socialization (Vera Institute of Justice, 2013). This basic philosophical orientation towards the corrections is what distinguishes the two policies. The US views corrections as a punitive measure while Germany and the Netherlands view corrections in a positive light -- a measure that is designed to return the inmate to society. Indeed, recidivism rate in the US is 40% -- meaning that 4 out of every 10 inmates released will return to prison within the first three years (Vera Institute of Justice, 2013). In Germany and the Netherlands, such a rate is unheard of -- primarily because the corrections institutions do not treat the inmates like prisoners: instead they seek to respect them as human beings and give them a sense of society so as to instill in them the norms and values that society upholds. For this reason, the prisons in Germany and the Netherlands are so unlike the prisons in the US that the former barely resemble the concept when compared to American cells. This paper will compare and contrast the corrections and sentencing practices of the United States, Germany and the Netherlands and provide recommendations to the U.S. Sentencing Commission to address the problem of mass incarceration in America.

As the Michael Moore documentary on the prison system in Norway shows, European approaches to corrections are much milder than they are in the U.S. This is because the philosophical underpinnings of the prison system are polar opposites. In the US the prison system is run like a concentration camp. In Norway, the approach to law and order is much different: there is no death penalty in Norway, no life sentences, no armed police. An interview with Norway's State Philosopher is also very revealing: he shows that the country is forward-looking instead of consumed with the present, with the here-and-now, with the Me Generation. Norway wants to conserve its resources (it will spend its surplus but preserve its capital) so that future generations will benefit -- and this mentality is also realized in the country's approach to corrections.

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Those who break the law are viewed sympathetically rather than vilified or viewed as potential source of prison labor. They are viewed as in need of help. That is why their prison is a beautiful island where the prisoners dress in regular clothes, are housed in regular lodgings, wake themselves, make their own breakfast, go to work, and receive what amounts to counseling so that they can return to society normal, happy and healthy. Their prisoners operate ferries that go off the island, grow vegetables, and walk about freely. The only people in uniform are the guards.

This is a stark difference to how prisoners are treated in the US, where all inmates are clothed in jumpsuits -- usually bright orange -- that look ridiculous and dehumanize the inmates. Moreover, prisoners in the US have nowhere near the level of comfortable lodgings that prisoners in Norway have: they live in small cells, with bars -- have little access to natural light. They are treated as though they were animals that can't be trusted. The Norwegian island prison is just the opposite. One inmate who killed two people with a chainsaw was sentenced to 4 years: he came to the island and was fine -- he lived peacefully among the prisoners and even worked in the forest with a chainsaw. There were no incidents. The respect for life that is evident in the Norwegian prison is clear and palpable: life is connected to nature and to the outdoors so that there is a sense of rejuvenation in all the projects and in all the ways that prisoners can go about reviving themselves and becoming whole again. "If you treat people properly they may change their behavior and become ordinary citizens," the prison counselor explains in the Michael Moore documentary. In the US, there is no such prevailing opinion, attitude or philosophy at work in the corrections system. This may be one reason recidivism rates in the US are higher than they are in Germany and in the Netherlands. Another reason could be that the US measures recidivism differently than in Euorpe.

As the Vera Institute of Justice's paper on corrections highlights, "Germany and the Netherlands use different base populations" when it comes to measuring recidivism rates (Subramanian, Shames, 2013, p. 6). "Both countries usually….....

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Moore, M. (2011). Michael Moore goes to Norway and visits a prison of the future. YouTube. Retrieved from

Subramanian, R., Shames, A. (2013). Sentencing and prison practices in Germany and the Netherlands: Implications for the United States. Vera Institute of Justice: Center on Sentencing and Corrections. Retrieved from

Vera Institute. (2013). Sentencing and Prison Practices in Germany and the Netherlands: Publication Highlights. Retrieved from

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