Germany: Low Crime, Clean Prisons, Lessons for America by Jeff Rosen (Transcript)

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.

And it turns out that from the kind of mid-19th century until the 1950s, 1960s, crime fell throughout cities around the world. And then, from the 1960s to the early 1990s, crime rose: property crime, violent crime rose all over the Western World.

But then, beginning in the early 1990s until today, crime fell all throughout Europe, Australia, Canada, the United States. It fell in all of those places.

Now, let’s take a look at our neighbor to the North, Canada. The reason I like to use Canada as an example — but I could do this with any country in Europe — is we share a boarder with Canada, we think Canadians are sort of like us, except nicer, a bit nicer — I think that’s the stereotype of Canadians.

So, if you look here, this is a comparison of robbery rates in the United States and in Canada, and you’ll notice that the rates kind of tick up in the early 1990s in both countries and then begin to fall to rates that weren’t seen in either country till the 1960s.

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So, robbery fell in both countries. The same with homicide. Our rate is on top. We have more robberies, we have more homicides; the Canadian rate is underneath.

But you’ll see the same kind of pattern. Again, in the early 1990s, there’s sort of an uptick in murder — that’s what homicide is, a kind of murder. And then, from the 1990s, in both countries, it falls back to levels not seen since the 1950s or 1960s, right?

So, in other words, in the United States and Canada, crime was rising in the 60s, 70s, 80s and early 90s, in both countries, crime went up, and then crime started to fall in both countries.

Okay, but why did crime fall? Well, in the United States you say, “It fell because, you see, we got tough, and we put a lot more people in prison.”

But what did Canada do in terms of its incarceration rate? Here’s what we did.

Our incarceration rate is on top. We responded by throwing a lot more people in prison for a lot longer. Our incarceration rate goes way up.

What did Canada do? Nothing. The same thing that they’d been doing for the last 100 years. And what’s interesting about Canada is their incarceration rate, of about 100 per 100,000 people –

Wait a minute: where have we heard that before? That’s what our incarceration rate was from 1925 until 1975. And so, it turns out that what affects crime rates is a lot more than just how many people that you put in prison.

New York University Law School, a couple of years ago, came out with a very documented, extensive study, and they found three things.

Number one: increasing incarceration rates, throwing more people in prison for longer, will have a negligible effect on crime.

Number two: better policing, including the use of data to target police resources, has played a significant role in the drop in crime.

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And number three: certain socioeconomic factors have played a large part in reducing crime, and those factors are: an aging population, smaller families, and decreased alcohol consumption.

So, let’s sort of move a little bit from a lot about statistics and policies to what I saw in Germany.

Now, German prisons are very different than American prisons. Number one, they’re a lot smaller. The largest prison in Germany is Tegel Prison, in Berlin. It has 1,200 inmates. Most German prisons are much smaller. They have 300 to 500 inmates in them.

By contrast, American prisons, very large, the largest, Rikers Island, in New York, over 14,000 inmates. Angola State Prison, in Louisiana, more than 5,000 inmates. California, if you drive an hour and a half north to San Quentin, 3,500 inmates.

If you drive an hour and a half south to Soledad State Prison, 3,600 inmates. Much, much larger.

Secondly, German prisoners wear their own clothes. They dress just like you do. They cook their own meals, and they have tremendous freedom of movement within the prison.

By contrast, American prisoners, we all know that they wear identical uniforms, they’re confined in their cells for most of the day, and they eat meals in these large cafeterias.

German prisoners have their own cell, a telephone in it, and their own kind of toilet, as well. And let’s look a little bit at Heidering Prison. This is the most recently built prison in Germany. It was built in 2013.

So you see, from the outside, barbed wire. It looks like a prison. This is an entryway into it. This is just a place so everybody can walk through the prison to get from one place to another. You see there’s a lot of natural light.

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