I spent last week in Germany, visiting prisons and courts to study how they handle young adults. The Columbia University Justice Lab organized the trip for a group of legislators and practitioners from Massachusetts. Our German hosts were very generous with their time and candor. Their passionate commitment to rehabilitating young adults was inspiring. This post collects my impressions from the trip and some questions for follow-up.
Justice — Process
For a practitioner steeped in our constitutional law and our criminal justice practice, it was an absolutely dizzying experience to watch a trial in a German court room. The judge and the prosecutor sat side-by-side wearing similar robes above the late teen defendant. The defendant had maliciously threatened a woman on the subway with a fake gun and had a prior record of similar behavior. He faced the possibility of some weeks or months of incarceration. Yet, he was alone before the court with no lawyer. A social worker who had prepared him for the experience was present in the courtroom, but not near him. The judge and prosecutor heard from the victim. They asked the defendant questions and lectured him and determined that he appeared to be working and in a relationship. The judge ultimately sentenced him to pay a compensatory fine.
Both judges and prosecutors are life-tenured civil servants hired by the Ministry of Justice. The ministry hires judges and prosecutors at the completion of their legal training — four years of undergraduate legal education followed by an exam, then two or three years of legal apprenticeship then a second exam. The ministry hires high scorers on the exams. The judges and prosecutors we spoke with took great pride in their work — they were all deeply committed to finding truth and crafting appropriate dispositions.
The prosecutor has a supervisory role over the police in determining what cases should come before the court, but once the case is before the court, the judge drives the trial process. The judge can call witnesses and interrogate them. In cases where there is a probability of a longer incarceration, the defendant is entitled to a lawyer, but the role of the defense lawyer is not to “get the kid off”, rather to assure that his version of truth is heard and considered and he gets a fair shake.
More serious cases may be heard by a panel of judges — two lay judges together with either one or, in the most serious cases, three professional judges. The lay judges are sometimes chosen by a random process remotely similar to our jury selection process, but people can volunteer for the part-time role and usually there are sufficient volunteers.
The German justice system, while allowing for some lay input, places its faith primarily in smart civil servants of high integrity. By contrast, American justice grows out of mistrust of the King’s justice. We put the truth finding function in the hands of a lay jury. We expect defense counsel to assert whatever available arguments that might lead the case to fall apart. Judges are senior lawyers who, during a trial, mostly referee the performance of the defense and the prosecution before the jury. If a judge has a perception of where the truth lies, it is their duty not to convey it to the jury.
Justice — Substance
At dinner one night I had the good fortune to be seated next to a judge with 20 years on the bench judging young adults. She effused about her efforts to craft just the right individualized disposition in each case — to understand the educational needs of the defendant, what drew him into crime and what would be most helpful in getting him on track.
The next day, her husband, a prosecutor, presented the case of a young Russian immigrant who had stomped his grandmother to death in a rage when she wouldn’t help him out financially. To the examining coroner, the victim’s body looked as if it had been retrieved from a plane crash. The court, with the prosecutor’s support, sentenced the young man to 6 years in prison. The judgment of the court was that 6 years would be enough to get the young man the help he needed to avoid future misconduct. Decades later, he has not committed a subsequent offense of that gravity.
He shared the case to emphasize the point that for juveniles under 18, the sole question in sentencing is what it will take to rehabilitate them. The intervention should be as limited as possible. For adults (over the age of 21), protecting the public and defending the credibility of the enforcement process are legitimate reasons to impose a harsh sentence. For emerging adults (18, 19 or 20 years old), the court has to evaluate whether they were acting like a juvenile or as an adult, but in the large majority of cases, emerging adults are found to have been acting as juveniles and sentenced according to juvenile law.
The maximum penalty for any crime committed by a person under 18 (or a young adult under 21 who is treated as a juvenile) is 10 years. Life sentences are available for adult defendants. However, as our Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has held for juveniles, the national German constitutional court has held that even adults should eventually have a chance at parole.
Children under 14 have no criminal exposure, but may be found to be in need of care. Social service and health interventions may, in rare cases, involve secure detention, but children cannot be prosecuted. In Massachusetts, the minimum age for prosecution is 7 and we may move it to 12 if our pending reforms are enacted, but we would still be below almost all European countries. In theory, children in need of care may receive welfare assistance all the way to the age of 27, but, in practice, assistance is limited after age 18.
Although we couldn’t make a systematic apples-to-apples comparison, sentences appear considerably shorter than in Massachusetts. Collateral consequences are also much more limited. Newspapers generally do not publish defendants’ names. Criminal records are expunged after 5 years of clean time or 10 years for the more serious offenses. Even before expungement, criminal records are private, although employers can ask a prospect to provide a transcript (which will not include youth court convictions unless incarcerated resulted).
Sex offenders may serve long periods of probationary supervision, but their names are never published. Supervisory professionals expressed eagerness to intervene to prevent arrangements that might create opportunities for sex offenders to re-offend. In our system, we do not ask potential victims to trust probationary supervisors. We insist on disclosure so that people can make their own decisions about whether their contacts with a sex offender pose unacceptable risks. Of course, the result in our system is that convicted sex offenders have enormous difficulty finding housing and employment and may, in turn, be more likely to re-offend.
A theme that recurred in our conversations is the enormous independence of both prosecutors and judges — neither is ever required to face popular election and they take pride in making decisions based on science, the facts and the law, with no regard to public opinion.
Corrections — Prisons
We visited two youth prisons — one in Berlin and one in rural northern Germany. We also spoke with probation officers and treatment providers in both areas. Across the board, the commitment to rehabilitation of offenders was impressive.
An opinion of the German high constitutional court led to the passage of the Federal Prison Act of 1976 which set the following principles in stone:
Life in penal institutions should be approximated as far as possible to general living conditions.
Any detrimental effects of imprisonment shall be counteracted.
Imprisonment shall be so designed as to help the prisoner to reintegrate himself into life at liberty.
In other words, as explained by the leader of the rural correctional system, loss of liberty is punishment enough; the daily conditions of incarceration should not add to the punishment; rehabilitation is a central goal.
These principles are echoed in the Youth Prison Acts in the states that we visited. According to our guides, these laws emphasize rehabilitation for youth. We could see that rehabilitation is strongly embraced by all who work in the system. We did hear a polling result that 58% of the population perceive the youth justice system to be too lenient, but since the youth justice policies are based on high court opinions, there is no political movement to change direction. We gathered that day-release policies were one area where prison officials had to play defense, regularly producing statistics to show that return rates are near 100% and crimes committed by people on release are exceedingly rare.
Correctional officers in young adult prisons get two years of training. They like their job and believe that they are making a difference: “We respect and value our clients and their self esteem increases.” A plan for programming and re-entry is designed for each inmate at the start of their sentence.
Both youth prisons required their convicted prisoners to engage in full days of group activity. The emphasis, consistent with German education overall, was on vocational training — carpentry, metal working, agriculture, etc. — more so than on academic schooling. The work they do inside the walls can be counted towards completion of required apprenticeships in the trades.
Behavioral health programming was also available, but not psychiatric medication. In many Massachusetts facilities, psych meds are widely distributed. Germans perceive Americans to be generally over-reliant on medication and rarely distribute psych meds to inmates. The most serious mental health cases are handled in a separate mental health system that we didn’t get a window into.
The facilities felt safe. Many dangerous tools were accessible to prisoners and there appeared to be no concern that prisoners might use them for violence. At the facility in the rural area, staff and inmates dined together in a spacious dining room (shown below) with hanging plants and picture windows. This was impressive since the majority of youths had been sentenced for violent offenses and most were in the volatile 19 to 25 age bracket (detained on longer sentences for offenses committed under the age of 21).
I didn’t see it, but others in our group raved about the accommodation for young mothers in the rural facility. Mothers lived with their babies in rooms that were as cheerful as any apartment. Children are not to be punished for the sins of their parents. They are allowed to remain with the mothers until roughly 3 or 4, an age at which they might become aware that they are incarcerated.
The facility in the rural state was new and very nice — the brutal East German communist facilities had to be completely demolished and replaced after reunification. The facility in Berlin, while of similar program design, was older and less comfortable. Although the politics in Berlin are more liberal and the state might be expected to invest in a better facility, the government has high debt levels after reunification and has experienced budget cutting pressure.
One thing that gave some of us pause was that in both prisons, the prisoners were confined to their rooms with solid doors. The prison leaders felt that this was an issue of respecting the privacy of inmates. The rooms were adequately sized and inmates could make themselves at home with radio and television. One inmate serenaded us with a tune from his keyboard. Certainly, the closed doors made the facility quieter and more orderly. Yet, the amount of time locked-in appeared to approach 12 hours per day and the full isolation seemed potentially unhealthy and risky. Inmates seemed to spend time struggling to communicate through their open exterior windows.
Another thing that gave us pause is that, at least in Berlin, visits are limited to 2 hours twice per month. Until inmates work themselves up to higher privilege levels through good behavior, they can only see family. We didn’t it nail it down, but we informally heard numbers that suggested a higher rate of suicide than in comparable Massachusetts facilities.
We did not visit any adult prisons, but we understood that the emphasis on rehabilitation is much less. Rehabilitation is perceived as a worthy goal for adults, but the system chooses to invest finite rehabilitation resources in young people.
Corrections — Community
We met with probation officers and service providers in Berlin and in northern Germany. There is a close partnership between community supervisors and the prisons. If a person under community supervision is incarcerated, their supervisor will communicate with the prison to assure continuity of rehabilitation and education efforts. Similar communication occurs at re-entry to assure a smooth transition back to the community. We heard astronomical job placement rates — 70%.
The community supervisors were mostly trained social workers The ratio of youth clients to youth probation officers appeared to be about 40 to 1 in Berlin — lower than in Massachusetts. Supervisors seemed to fully own the challenge of positively motivating defendants to follow the program. They treat their clients with respect and win their trust: “They know that I will stick with them.” Incarceration for technical probation violations is rarely necessary. Community service providers projected the same sense of mission, seeking to form long-term supportive relationships and reintegrate their clients with other social structures.
They believe that most young people can be brought back on track with proper supervision:
They all want to be good persons with lucky, happy lives. They need education. Their families don’t support them. No one at home tells them to go to school.
In our meeting with the community supervision group in Berlin, we pushed repeatedly on the question of whether they thought there were any reforms needed in their own system. They seemed in good faith to be baffled by the question. The only problem that they could really point to was the lack of affordable housing, driven by gentrification and rapidly rising costs. In the rural state, we heard that municipalities should do a better job supporting youths, rather than leaving it all up to corrections.
We did hear that adults often choose to finish up terms in prison rather than be released early to community supervision. It suggests that, even in Germany, probation is not an experience loved by all defendants.
The system makes extensive use of fines as a penalty. However, fines are scaled and imposed as a number of days, where a day fine is 1/30 of a person’s after tax monthly income. Juveniles are never fined. Failure to pay fines may translate into detention for young adults and adults. In Berlin, of 4047 incarcerated on March 31, 2014, 343 were held for fine defaults. This seems like a substantial share of the incarcerated population.
Like the United States, Germany is a federation of states, each with their own criminal justice system, operating under the legal supervision of a national constitutional court. We visited Berlin and Mecklenburg-Pomerania. In both states, the incarceration rates are low. In Berlin, they have a total of about 4000 people in some form of custody from a population of approximately 3.6 million. In Masschusetts, we have approximately 20,000 in custody from a population of 6.6 million, putting Berlin’s incarceration rate at about 35% of ours. And, of course, our incarceration rate is among the lowest in the United States. In Mecklenburg-Pomerania, there are approximately 1100 held on a population of 1.6 million, for a rate only 23% of ours.
Overall, crime is not rising though and the youth prison population appeared to be trending down in both states we visited. Guns are not widely accessible in Germany and gun violence is not perceived as a central problem. The murder rate in Berlin is .85 persons per 100,000, roughly half the rate in Massachusetts. Drug problems also appear to be less prevalent in Germany. Cannabis and methamphetamines are used by some young people, but there is no perceived recent increase. There is no perceived opiate problem. Pain medications are not liberally prescribed in Germany — better to be able to feel the body. Somehow, heroin and fentanyl have not gained a foot hold.
Comparisons are difficult to make across jurisdictions, but it appears that both Berlin and Mecklenburg-Pomerania have lower crime rates than Massachusetts and their incarceration rates are much lower. It appears that they have lower incarceration rates even factoring in for the lower crime rates, but this is not something we can say with any confidence. Certainly, from the examples we heard, sentences are shorter — the view seems to be that long sentences don’t send a stronger message to defendants and probably do harm. We heard low recidivism rate statistics, which is impressive since low incarceration rates often mean that only the worst are held and recidivism rates are therefore higher. But we couldn’t run the recidivism comparisons to ground.
In Berlin, non-citizen immigrants constitute fully 60% of the young adult prison population, while recent citizens constitute another 20%. Native Germans are only only about 20%. In the general population, the numbers are reversed with native Germans constituting 70% and the other categories about 15% each. There is heavy immigration from Poland and Turkey as well as from the middle east and north Africa. The incarceration rate for young adults among the non-citizen immigrant population in Berlin appears to be roughly 15 times the rate for native Germans. The professionals we spoke with attributed this disparity to a combination of lack of knowledge of the rules, history of trauma and lack of social supports — some are unaccompanied minors. Additionally, it may be that young males are disproportionately numerate among the immigrants, which would mean the apparent disparity was overstated. Steeped in our concern about American racial bias, some of us wondered whether anti-immigrant bias contributed to the contrast. There were a couple of dinner comments we weren’t sure we understood, but none of the people we met embraced bias as an explanation for the contrast in incarceration rates.
German justice differs fundamentally from American justice. It is built around a high-level of trust for civil service professionals. The professionals we met were all impressive in their intelligence, knowledge and sense of mission.
I think we have comparably impressive professionals in Massachusetts, yet our system does not give them the same independence and power. Our judge cannot sentence a defendant until the prosecutor has overcome many procedural barriers and a jury has finally found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Our elected prosecutor is directly accountable to popular opinion and will likely seek a harsh sentence. The judge, although appointed for life, operates under the harsh glare of media scrutiny. Ironically, although defendants have greater procedural protection in our system, once convicted they will be sentenced more harshly and have less access to rehabilitation.
While we will never abandon the openness of our courts or the procedural protections that we have given to defendants, the German commitment to rehabilitation — so passionately shared by the well-informed professionals who give it meaning — was inspiring. It especially raises the question of what more we can do for young adults — those not too far over 18 who still have a lot of maturity to gain and more potential to change direction.
We have gone through a long conversation about criminal justice reforms in Massachusetts, which will, I hope, very shortly result in the final passage of significant law changes. Yet, from there, we will still need to maintain a sharp focus on what the system is actually doing to defendants and fund program improvements where appropriate.
The most obvious areas for improvement are in the re-entry process for all defendants and in the overall programming that we are giving to the young adults. We thoroughly examined the re-entry process in our CSG process — the main issue on re-entry over the next few years will be funding of re-entry programs.
Here are some questions we need to consider about how to improve our response for young adults:
- Do we want to move young adults into the juvenile justice system by raising the age of adulthood up from 18?
- Raising the age instantly gives young adults the benefit of the generally-acclaimed rehabilitative services of our Department of Youth Services. However, many of the services offered by DYS are designed for younger defendants. We need to think through carefully what kinds of changes would be needed in the operation of DYS to properly support older defendants. The German example suggests that a single correctional system can handle both juveniles and young adults, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t need changes in DYS.
- Raising the age also gives young adults the benefit of the higher confidentiality of juvenile courts. This is significant, but we could accomplish much of it by further changes in our CORI laws. We did take steps in that direction in our Criminal Justice Reform Package.
- Raising the age gives young adults the benefit of rehabilitation-oriented juvenile judges and probation officers. Some prosecutors oppose the change for precisely this reason — they feel juvenile judges will be too lenient.
- Alternatively or additionally, should we create better programming for young adults in the adult correctional system.
- The huge benefit of this approach is that it can be more easily extended to higher ages. Serious late teen offenders who need longer prison terms could remain in rehabilitative programming well into their 20s. Additionally, people who commit offenses in their early 20s — many of whom may still be malleable — could receive rehabilitative programming.
- One drawback of this approach is that it depends heavily on the fragemented county-level House of Corrections system which is run by our sheriffs. Some sheriffs are already on their own initiative developing young adult programs, but others may not take to it.
- Who decides whether adult or juvenile programming is appropriate — prosecutors, judges or correctional officials?
- Currently, for children 14 to 18, it is the prosecutor who decides whether adult sanctions might be applied by bringing a youthful offender indictment and the juvenile judge who ultimately decides on the appropriate sanction. (For murder adult sanctions are always applied.)
- We could give district court judges the ability to decide to send young adult defendants to the juvenile system pursuant to developmental criteria. This is essentially the German approach as to defendants aged 18, 19 or 20.
- Or we could leave correctional programming decisions to correctional officials. We could, for example, give DYS and the sheriffs latitude to move prisoners back and forth between them.
- There are many variations possible.
- What can we do in the way of system changes — methods of selection of officials, training requirements, etc. — that would create a stronger orientation to rehabilitation? Ultimately what was most impressive to me in Germany was the culture in the justice and correctional systems — the passion that everyone we met had for helping young people.
- We didn’t get a window into the German mental health and substance abuse systems, but behavioral health treatment has to be a huge part of our conversation in Massachusetts, especially given our opiate problem.
The criminal justice package which should shortly sit on the Governor’s desk for approval includes non-binding suggestions for both young adult probation officers and young adult correctional units. It also creates a commission to broadly consider all of the questions of how we approach young adults.
This word — the longest known single word palindrome — means “soap-stone dealer” in Finnish. To steal a joke from Judge Volker Horstmann: This post is also Finish.
- Columbia University Justice Lab
- CU Justice Lab Germany Itinerary
- System Overview Powerpoint by Prof. Frieder Dunkel
- The Prison System in Berlin (official descriptive pamphlet)
- Federal Prison Act (legal foundation of German prison system)
- Youth Courts Law (legal foundation of German youth justice)
- Sentencing and Prison Practices in Germany and the Netherlands: Implications for the United States (report)
- Emerging Adult Justice in Massachusetts (report)
- Community-Based Responses to Justice-Involved Young Adults (report)
- Better in Europe? European Response to Young Adult Offending (report)
What a great summary of the trip – honored to attend with Sen. Brownsberger and the rest of the delegation! Vinny Schiraldi, Columbia Justice Lab.
What an interesting write up.
Hope their English was good unless sprechen Deutch.
I think it smart to maybe move towards having Young Adult Juvenile prisons that are say 14-25 year old. The human brain is not fully formed to 25.
They seem to have a more respectful system. I like that they are not so reliant on drugs. We prescribe way to often and should encourage more alternative care for say pain by using Chiropractors, Accupuncturists, Massage therapists and physical therapists.
This was a most interesting discussion you put up.
For that matter I know many people way older than 25 whose brain is nowhere near fully formed either. No joke.
What should we be doing about them?
Great question. I agree that many people who commit crimes as adults have fixable problems.
The basic insight is this: We know that young adults are going to further mature. Maturity may not end their criminal career, but in most cases it will. We can’t be so sure that adults will change.
So, it makes sense to invest most rehabilitation effort in young adults (and juveniles).
So, if we are going to invest in
We have to find the funding to provide a job skill to young offenders who are incarcerated so they have a real prospect of employment upon release.
That is our real next challenge — funding.
Thanks for this very informative and fascinating summary of your trip. If only we could be as enlightened in the way we deal with young offenders.
Great Job again Will.
I am impressed with the stronger focus on rehabilitation that the German Government is using. It is my hope that we can implement some of the wonderful ideas. As a Boston Public School Nurse I particularly worry about the young men of color. Thank you for working on judicial reform.
Interesting a young man stomps his grandmother to death over money and only gets 6 years. Does that mean that at the end of 6 years the grandmother suddenly comes back to life?????????
Maybe murderers should only get a slap on the wrist??????
I understand your reaction.
If an adult had committed that offense, even the German system probably would have sentenced him to life.
But their view of the teen’s behavior was that it was not only awful, but very childish and that as a grown man he would not repeat it.
The Delaney Street Foundation has been working to rehabilitate released felons upon their reentry to society for the past 4 decades. Active in about 7 cities around the nation (but alas not yet Boston), it’s a large non-profit headquartered a block over from where I work in San Francisco. Clients are given job opportunities in the projects of the charity itself, and are part of a nurturing support network.
It’s become one of my favorite causes ever since a run-in I had with the HR department at a Cambridge firm 10 years ago. Seeking a recruit for a hard-to-fill position, as manager I learned that an applicant whose skills I’d already known about from past interactions happened to be a felon. I wanted to make the hire anyway, but HR vetoed the hire for security reasons. The candidate had robbed a local bank 20 years prior and had served his already-harsh sentence long ago. Yet he continues to struggle, earning perhaps a third of the salary his skills would ordinarily command.
For me, this is not about coddling criminals. It’s about redemption, reducing recidivism, building a stronger/more vibrant economy which leverages all of our collective skills, and living in safer neighborhoods with lower incarceration rates.
What an illuminating view of the German Justice System for young adults and how it compares with ours, Will! I hope the legislation you have sponsored passes.
Anne Covino Goldenberg
A few questions come to mind:
1) What percentage of crimes (prisoners)in Mass. are drug related, and why do we have a much higher drug abuse rate here?
2) Do they have gang related activities as a major source of violent crime?
3) Do we have, or will we spend what is necessary, to offer comparable training during incarceration to enable prisoners to become employed upon release?
The available data on your first question is not exact.
At the House of Correction level, many crimes are drug related in the sense either (a) that they are motivated by the need to get money to purchase drugs or (b) are the result of intoxication.
At the state prison level, more of the offenses are violent offenses that are not obviously drug related. Some of the violence is gang related and so related by context to drugs, but not really caused by drugs — gangs do fight about drug territory, but they fight about many other things too.
Why do we have a higher drug abuse rate here? One answer may be that the big American pharma companies that have oversold pain medications never got a foothold in Germany.
Your last question is the big one — that will be our challenge over the years to come: To fund the necessary improvements in programming.
Today in my class, Dubious Convictions, at Harvard Institute for Retired Professionals, we were discussing the fact you have just visited Germany. Dirck Stryker mentioned it. So it was amazing to open up your email to read about it. A lot of change in thinking and more money but the goal of a better rehabilitation program with humane living conditions would be the better way to go. Thank you for your work in this area,
Thank you very much for this fascinating account of, indeed, a v. important concern. I’m trusting that you will be happy if it is forwarded to people working in the criminal justice systems of other US States – ?
Certainly, shorter sentences free up funds that can be plowed into rehab. efforts. That seems a worthy investment.
Good morning Senator,
I swear you’re a breath of fresh air. Have you been out to the Youth Unit at Billerica House of Correction yet?
Come see us
Hope to get out there some time soon.
Thanks Will for a very informative and moving article. If only we could start all over again! This ties in well with a recent 60 Minutes program on adult prisons that were humane and rehabilitative. I especially like the details about their Judges. I’ve often thought our system of electing or appointing to be ineffectual in many cases; rather that judges should go to “Judge School” and work their way up through a system as you describe.
Now to do something about guns, drugs, and the unfortunate children irom dysfunctional families etc etc….
Thank you for these fine articles.
Looking at the best practices elsewhere in the world is just a terrific idea! There is so much of value in these notes—the central idea that juvenile offenders are still in a developmental stage, respect for the legal system, the value of vocational careers, . . .
I am much in favor of the idea of putting the emphasis on of getting young offenders back on track and think that the process getting under way here will help lead the state in the right direction.
Thanks again for these detailed notes and your efforts for reforming the system.
Wonderful detailed report, Senator. Thank you. The only upsetting part, as mentioned by one commentator, had to do with the beating death of the grandmother. It’s great that in six years he was rehabilitated and offending behavior was not repeated, but it does raise concerns that young people may get the impression that consequences won’t be so severe for such horrific behavior. That said we in this country are too far on the other extreme.
Thank you for your very informative report. It is interesting how much emphasis is placed on rehabilitation, education and mental health services, not just handing out pills to control the population. If we trained our corrections staff as they did theirs I bet we would get better outcomes. Vocational training, education, mental health services and ending solitary confinement would go a long way towards changing lives for the better. Also, for the money Massachusetts spends, I think it is horrible that many inmates are unable to even read and have a sixth grade education level or below. We need an overhaul on the corrections approach we use and accountability for what they are doing with the money. Gov. Baker’s budget calls for $10,000,000. for MORE corrections officers when we have a ratio of nearly 2 inmates to each officer now. Why not spend money on education and training for inmates to enable a proper adjustment as prison should prepare you to return to society. Let’s hope that what we see in Germany and most of Europe can be applied here and let’s make Massachusetts a leader in reform.
Thanks for such a comprehensive report. Let’s hope it can make a difference as our courts don’t seem to do much in this area.
I noted this part of your report and wish to respond to it: “vocational training — carpentry, metal working, agriculture, etc. — more so than on academic schooling. The work they do inside the walls can be counted towards completion of required apprenticeships in the trades.”
When I was in Jr. High back in the 50’s in my hometown of New Bedford, MA we had shop choices every year that gave us hands-on skills which could be used after graduation, if college wasn’t feasible.
Electric, Carpentry/Woodworking, Machine Printing Shops is what I and typing and home-making for girls was also offered. (Many of these subject today would be on computers).
I don’t believe there is time for these classes in school these days, but it seems there is plenty of time off for kids for union teacher’s “professional days” on a regular bases. In our time, one day a year was set aside for what was called a “Teacher’s Convention” where teachers from all over met in the Boston Gardens, I believe.
because of the hgih level of drug relAted crimes among younger people,i advise that a system of rehab with ojt on the job training in manual skills may have rewards of lowering reoccurence.i do have an opnion that violent crime among youth population should not be awarded this rehab program on an equal basis with non violent crime offenders,perhaps after serving a number of years intitially and there maybe a benefit to have a seperate code for youth violent crime punishment lesser than an adult punishemnt but much more than for non violent youth offenders.
Reform of our system that seems to be medieval, vengeful like a paupers prison and just making people more revolting to established rules and lacking the help to reintegrate, is highly overdue.
Thank you for your work!
Fascinating observations from your trip. I do hope the new bill and associates funding takes us partway there. I hope you will continue learning and helping Massachusetts figure out how to rehabilitate the many people that go through custody and renter our communities. I do hope we continue to encourage programs to keep people from entering the correctional system in the first place. I look forward to watches big the implementation of the bill I expect will have the full support of the legislature and the governor in the next few days.
Will: This is a wonderful and very thoughtful summary of your visit. I am so happy to see that, under your leadership, the Judiciary Committee will continue to take up and promote further changes in the way we do criminal justice here. You didn’t raise a critical question One issue I was somewhat surprised to see you not question here is prosecuting and punishing juveniles as adults. The severity of the crime shouldn’t be at issue. The fifteen year old murderer is still just 15. Either we respect what we’ve learned about maturation of the brain or we don’t.
You didn’t comment on whether Germans use solitary confinement and if so, how. I am hoping that in the next session the legislature goes further than it did on reigning in that barbaric practice. The attitude that you found in Germany – that prisons were designed to help people and change behavior – is so different from the attitude here, which sees prisons as a place for punishment. As long as that is the prevailing attitude, solitary confinement is going to be used punitively.
While you were away, there was a story in the Globe which I missed at the time, but learned about from a letter to the Globe whose comments are worth noting:
Let me add, first of all, my thanks to those expressed by your other constituents for this most informative account of German criminal justice practices.
I was stuck in particular by the fact that, as you write,”the national German constitutional court has held that all defendants, both juveniles and adults, should eventually have a chance at parole.”
The ruling apparently reflects a popular conviction that — again, as you write — “long sentences don’t send a stronger message to defendants and probably do harm.”
This is a message that needs to be heard by the state legislature in Massachusetts, where more than 1,000 men and women currently serve sentences offering no hope of parole.
Massachusetts is one of four states in which more than 10 percent of the men and women in the state prison network are serving life without parole (LWOP) sentences.
There are however several initiatives under way to do away with this inhumane and costly practice.
The Criminal Justice Policy Coalition, for example, is advocating mandatory parole review starting at 25 years of incarceration.
Just a belated word of thanks for your comprehensive report and for the thoughtful feedback from many of your readers. There are lessons to be learned here, but the differences in “culture” (especially regarding the prevalence of guns and drugs here) and in the structure of the judicial system (our English Common law roots vs. the continental “civil law” system), as well as the professionalism of our judges and prosecutors (political appointees and elected officials vs. career civil servants) may make those lessons hard to translate.
The culture differences are real. That is precisely the challenge though — to change culture through leadership. I’d like to think that legislative direction and structural change have the potential to affect culture, at least within state agencies.
From the reading, I take that youth is never tried as adults in murder cases. Is that true? Did that issue come up in your comparison? And why should we, in the US, ever try a youth as an adult regardless of the crime?
For juveniles, under 18, the limit is 10 years regardless of the crime. For young adults who are 18, 19 or 20, the court must assess whether their immaturity played apart in their crime. If so, they will be tried as juveniles, if not, they will be tried as adults and liable for an adult sentence.
Thank you—that was fascinating.
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