Here is the full text of experienced prosecutor Jeff Rosen’s talk titled “Germany: Low Crime, Clean Prisons, Lessons for America” at TEDxMountainViewHighSchool conference.
Jeff Rosen – TEDx Talk Transcript
When I was growing up, my family didn’t have a dog. Other kids in the neighborhood had a dog.
So, one day I asked my dad, “Why don’t we have a dog?”
And my dad said, “Because they used ‘Hunds’ on us,” meaning that the Nazis used dogs to attack and intimidate my family, my dad and my grandmother, during the three years that they spent in Nazi concentration camps.
We also didn’t have a German car — no Volkswagen, no Mercedes, no BMW. “Nazi cars” is what my dad called them.
Last summer, I was standing at the Hertz rental car counter in Berlin when the clerk said to me, “Mr. Rosen, I’m very sorry, we don’t have the car that you reserved,” and my face kind of fell.
And the clerk said, “But don’t worry, Mr. Rosen. I have really good news for you. I’ve got a car that has a sunroof, and it’s leather, and it’s big; it’s a wonderful luxury car. Mr. Rosen, let me show you the beautiful Mercedes-Benz that we have for you.”
And I thought, “This is going to be kind of an interesting road trip, where I’m going to be taking this car.”
I’ll tell you where I took this car at the end of this talk. Let me first tell you why I went to Germany to begin with and what I learned there.
Last summer, I went to Germany with 20 other people from the US, a pretty distinguished group: a governor; another district attorney; several prominent academics; conservative activists, progressive activists; the head of a nonprofit association; a few reporters; 60 Minutes, the television news program; and a convicted murderer from Detroit. One big, happy family.
Germany has a very low crime rate and a very low incarceration rate, meaning a very low percentage of their citizens who are imprisoned.
By contrast, the United States’ murder rate is nine times as high as in Germany, and we incarcerate at the rate of ten times as many as they do in Germany.
In the United States, we’ll spend more than $50 billion a year on prisons, more than $9 billion a year alone in California. In fact, California is one of 16 states where there are more people in prison than there are in college. It costs about $50,000 a year to house someone in prison.
For those of you that are seniors, you know that the cost of going to a university, all-in cost, can be something like $50,000 a year or maybe even more than that.
Now, I know everybody here is going to graduate, but 6 out of 100 American men who graduate from high school but not college will spend a year in prison before they turn 30.
For high school dropouts, 28 out of 100 will spend a year in prison before they turn 30. For African American men who drop out of high school, 68%, 68 out of 100, will spend a year in prison before they turn 30.
However, it was not always this way in the United States. This is our incarceration rate from 1925 to about 1975. And “incarceration rate” is a fancy word for saying.
What’s the percentage of our residents who are either in jail or prison? And you’ll see that from 1925 to 1975, that 50-year period, it’s about 100 per 100,000. And it’s pretty stable. It goes up a little bit in around 1940, comes down a little bit, but it’s very stable.
But then something quite dramatic happens from the mid 1970s until today, and you’ll see from the mid 1970s until today, the incarceration rate shoots up to where it is today, at around 700 per 100,000, in a sevenfold, 700%-percent increase.
Now, to put this in context a little bit. What about other countries, right?
Well, when we compare ourselves to other democracies, to other First World democratic nations, our incarceration rate is off the chart, as you can see. We’re by far the highest. Every other country in Europe, including Australia, Canada is much, much lower than ours.
And as you see, Germany — almost maybe a tenth, little over nine times fewer people incarcerated than in our country.
So, there was a study done by the National Academy of Sciences, in 2014, and they concluded that the growth in the incarceration rate in our country over the last 40 years is historically unprecedented and internationally unique.
Now, it’s historically unprecedented because — look where we were for 50 years. So it’s unprecedented for ourselves. This is not the way we’ve done things in this country. But it’s also internationally unique.
When we compare ourselves to other countries, we’re incarcerating far, far more individuals than they are.
Now, it turns out that even as the incarceration rate in our country increased and increased and increased, crime fell and fell and fell. Now, some people will say, “Oh, well, the reason that crime fell and fell and fell is because our incarceration rates rose and rose and rose. You see? The argument is simple. The reason crime went down is we got tough, and we sent more people to prison, we made the prisons harsher, we made the prison sentences longer, we didn’t let people out on parole, and that taught people, and that’s why crime went down.”
That’s a pretty simple and straight-forward argument. It kind of appeals to a Wild West sort of mentality. And remember, when you’re trying to persuade people of something, a simple argument, something that people can understand, kind of gets you halfway there towards persuading them.
If people can understand something, they’re more likely to agree with it than if they don’t understand it. Now, the problem with this argument, and there’s only one, you know, sort of very small problem with this idea, is it’s completely wrong.
And the way that we know this is it turns out that crime doesn’t just have sort of trends in cities or countries, but across the Western World, across the developed world, Europe, Australia, Canada, it turns out that crime has moved in parallel since the Middle Ages, and we know this from all kinds of records that we have uncovered.