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.
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.
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.
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.
There’s kind of a sense of design and style. And the photos I’m showing you are exactly what the prison looked like when we saw it last summer.
So, if you think that, “Oh gosh, it looks immaculate, it looks cleaner than this high school,” this is how it looks, exactly how we saw it.
Again, a lot of light, a lot of natural light, a lot of light that comes in. This is looking into the dormitories where individuals live. And there’s kind of a balcony on each floor, a couple of balconies for inmates to go and get a little bit of fresh air.
The only difference is, yes, there’s bars there so someone doesn’t try to jump or try to escape. But it’s fairly pleasant, there’s a lot of grass, and it’s a feeling that’s more akin to being, frankly, on a junior college campus than it is to being in a prison. This is a hallway, and the doors on either side are where the cells are.
So I’m going to take you into a cell in just a moment here. So this is what a typical cell looks like. It’s not very large; about 100 square feet. I mean, they told us that in this thing called the metric system, which Americans don’t understand, but it’s about 100 square feet.
And you’ll see there’s a little — there will be a mattress over on the side there, a small mattress. There’s a desk, there’s a telephone, there’s a window for natural light. And there’s also an area, there’s a little partition where there’s a toilet and a sink.
Now, President Obama visited a federal state prison last summer. He went to El Reno Federal State Prison in Oklahoma, and he saw prison cells there that were about this size, the difference being, in those cells, two or three inmates would live, whereas in Germany, there’s only one.
There’s a lot less violence in German prisons than in American prisons, and part of that is because individuals are living in their own cell.
Now, for some of you that are going to college next year, the size of this cell is very much the same size as the dormitory that I lived in when I went to UCLA. Maybe the dorm room I had was a little bit larger, but there were two of us in it.
But there’s a big difference between kind of two college students, maybe one who is a little bit too clean and one who is too messy, and having a rapist and a murderer sharing a cell this size, right?
Think about that. So…
Now, there’s little cafeteria areas on each of the floors, and there’s a little kitchen here, and we asked the German prison officials, “In that kitchen, are there knives? Are there pots and pans?”
You know, “Are there dangerous and deadly weapons, from the American perspective?”
And the German correctional officer said, “Well, of course. I mean, that’s what you’ll cook with.”
So, a much different view about what inmates should have. The German view is trying to have people live in prison the way they’ll live when they’re outside of prison. They’ll need to cook their own meals and know how to do that, so let’s have them do that here. And this is just another view of that.
Now, very interesting things about German prisons. Every year, if an inmate in prison is doing mental health counseling and going to the classes they’re supposed to go to, doing vocational training, doing all the things they’re supposed to do in prison, they’re allowed to leave the prison for a few hours or even overnight, regardless of the crime they have committed.
And every year, there are hundreds of thousands of prison leaves, what we might call “furloughs.” And out of those hundreds of thousands of leaves, we asked, “Well, how many times does an inmate not come back? How many times do they commit a crime when they’re out?”
And the answer: out of all those leaves each year, 0.3% of inmates either don’t come back or commit a crime while they’re out. That’s three in a thousand. We don’t have anything like that in the United States.
German prisons, there are four kinds. They don’t call them “minimum,” “medium,” “maximum security.” They think that calling a facility “maximum security” will lead to violence between the inmates, and between the inmates and the staff, like everybody’s got to be tough because they’re going to maximum security.
So they have facilities where inmates were serving sentences of five years or longer, facilities where they’re serving sentences of five years or fewer, juvenile facilities — so if you commit a crime when you’re 18 years or younger, you would go to a juvenile facility, and you would do pretty much your whole sentence there.
So most of the people in the juvenile facilities are actually in their early to mid-twenties, but the Germans want to try to segregate younger offenders away from older, more hardened criminals so as not to have these younger offenders become more hardened criminals.
And number four, they have something called open prisons. An open prison is where you go when you have six months or less remaining on your sentence, and at that facility, you’re encouraged to leave during the day and look for a job and look for housing, and you just have to come back there at night.
The people that work in German prisons are much different than the people that work in American prisons. It’s very difficult to get a job as a German correctional officer. Fewer than 10% of the applicants are accepted. And it’s like getting into UCLA or Berkeley or something like that, to get a job like this.
Their training, they have two years of training. Most of their training is in social work, counseling, rehabilitation. Some of it is in physical control kinds of techniques. The facilities, as I’ve shown you, this Heidering Prison, the German prisons, they’re very nice places to work.
They’re clean, the staff eats the same food as the inmates, and the atmosphere in the prisons is actually quite relaxed. It’s not tense and angry.
Now, the obvious question is, Why? Article 1 of the German Constitution: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” That’s the very and number one most important thing in the German Constitution, and that’s been sided by the German Supreme Court to give inmates one person per cell, no solitary confinement, no death penalty, and everyone is eligible for parole there.
Now, of course, this German Constitution didn’t come out of nowhere. I wanted to show you the picture of Shaka Senghor. He was a convicted murderer from Detroit who came on this trip with us. He’s been released; he’s doing very well. He spent seven and a half years in solitary confinement in a Michigan state prison.
The German officials think that this is cruel and almost torture and were surprised that he’s not completely insane.
Now, I said to you that I showed you the German Constitution. That Constitution in Germany was written in 1949 while Germany was occupied by the United States, Britain and France, after World War II. That was written in the shadow of the Holocaust and what the German government had done. And so it’s not a surprise that the number one thing was “respect human dignity.”
Now, I finished my week-long trip there, got in a Mercedes-Benz, and started to drive to Bergen-Belsen. The car started to speak to me in German and give me directions. I don’t speak German, and I wasn’t real comfortable being told what to do in German, particularly given the fact that I was going to Bergen-Belsen.
I arrived in Bergen-Belsen about three hours later. My father and grandmother were in Bergen-Belsen from January 1945 until April 15th, 1945. This was their third concentration camp. They’d been in two other slave labor camps in Poland.
By the time they got to Bergen-Belsen in 1945, there were 60,000 people and 10,000 corpses — that’s dead people — in an area less than 0.2 square miles, less than half the size of your campus here.
So, there wasn’t a need for people to shoot to kill people. Disease like typhus and typhoid killed thousands of people. Even after the camp was liberated in April of 1945 by the British, another 10,000 people died the next month.
In March of 1945, at the same time my family, my dad and my grandmother, were there, Anne Frank and her sister Margot, you may have heard of her, died in March of 1945.
So, I got to the camp. These are some photos of what the camp looked like. It was burned to the ground by the British to get rid of all the disease that was there.
And so, there’s sort of a memorial that’s been set up on the site. I met with Dr. Bernd Horseman. He’s the chief archivist of Bergen-Belsen, and I had corresponded with him before I came. He’s about my age. He’s not Jewish; he grew up near this camp.
And I’d sent him the information about my family. I spent about half the day with him and half the day walking around, and he was actually able to show me the records that the British army kept and the Jewish committee kept of the people that had survived.
The name of the Jewish Committee’s records is called nitzolim, which is often translated as “Holocaust Survivors” or something like that.
But the Hebrew is much more poignant; it means “Counted Remanence.” And in the records, I saw the original names of my dad and my grandmother, my remanence.
I walked around the camp for about four hours. There’s mounds like this all over the camp, where there’s tens of thousands of people that are all buried underneath there. I didn’t go to Germany to forgive or forget, and I didn’t either, but I went to learn.
How did a country that had done such horrible things recreate itself so quickly into one of the most enlightened when it comes to crime and punishment? If Dostoyevsky was correct when he said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” then how civilized are we?
What I learned from visiting gleaming prisons, talking to correctional officers and convicted criminals, and then walking through a quiet field of mass graves is that the world might be broken but it can be repaired, because we’re all created with human dignity.