Last year, Santa Clara County’s top law enforcement official toured some German prisons to observe how the European nation has led the vanguard in criminal justice reforms. District Attorney Jeff Rosen will revisit that trip by way of a presentation at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, where county officials will weigh in on a slate of proposals to cut the local jail population by diverting mentally ill offenders to treatment.
The June 2015 delegation—funded by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice—marked Rosen’s first and only visit to Germany, where Nazis killed dozens of his relatives in concentration camps during World War II. In the wake of the atrocities committed under Nazi occupation, Germany enshrined human rights into its constitution and, by extension, its judicial and carceral system.
The result, some seven-plus decades later, is a system premised not on retribution but rehabilitation. Germany’s incarceration rate is about 90 percent lower than that of the United States. After 30 years of tough-on-crime policies, Americans incarcerate more of their own citizens than any other nation in the world. The cost of keeping all those people behind bars costs taxpayers about $80 billion a year.
The German model has become reference point for reform-minded Americans, including the delegation of politicians, academics, former offenders and criminal justice professionals Rosen joined for his fact-finding tour.
German prisons are open and sunny facilities where inmates undergo therapy, wear their own clothing, smoke cigarettes and make a living wage to build a savings for their near-inevitable release. If they abide by the rules, they’re allowed off-site family visits.
Under Germany’s sentencing laws, prison stays max out around 15 years. In the rare event someone is deemed too dangerous to release, the inmate will stay indefinitely in a spacious, studio apartment-like setting.
Germans, who recruit prison staffers from the ranks of social workers and mental health professionals, reportedly view law-breakers as medical patients. From the day an inmate arrives, the prison aims to prepare them to lead a responsible life once they leave. That therapeutic approach appears to work: German criminals are half as likely to re-offend.
The United States faces a different set of challenges than Western Europe, making it tough to simply replicate German prisons. Americans are armed to the teeth with guns and have fewer mental health services, a weaker social safety net and a dearth of affordable housing.
In the South Bay, two county jails have been the focus of urgent reform efforts after an inmate was found fatally beaten on the floor of his cell a year ago this week. Michael Tyree’s death, and the arrest of three correctional deputies in connection to the beating, galvanized the conversation about how to improve local jails and inspired Rosen to revisit his 2015 German prisons tour.
Rosen has spearheaded some progressive change since being elected in 2011 on a reform platform. He created a diversion program that allows people who commit petty crimes to clear their record by taking classes and paying restitution.
Watch 60 Minutes piece on German prisons. It might change your mind. DA Jeff Rosen was there, and it changed him.
— Santa Clara DA (@SantaClaraDA) April 4, 2016
In other ways, however, America’s culture of crime and punishment is a world away from Western Europe. According to a Marshall Project report on the 2015 delegation, Rosen wanted to know how victims’ desire for retribution plays into sentencing in Germany. Do high-profile murders result in more punitive laws?
“The Germans had trouble making sense of these questions,” wrote Marshall Project journalist Maurice Chammah. “There were a lot of blank stares. In Germany, prosecutors and judges are not elected. As career civil servants, they are insulated from public opinion. … Their role is to protect the rational system of correction—which aims to restrict freedom the least amount necessary—from the retributive impulses that individual victims and society in general might feel.”
A case in point came exactly a year after Rosen’s return from Germany to American soil. In response to a public outcry over a short sentence given this past June to a former Stanford student-athlete convicted of sexual assault, Rosen called for tougher penalties and mandatory minimum prison time for sexually violating an unconscious person.
Judge Aaron Persky sentencing Brock Turner to six months in jail inspired several bills that would prevent short sentences in sexual assault cases. It also ignited an effort to oust Persky, which pressured him to request a transfer to civil court.
Persky’s defenders have called Rosen’s proposed legislation out of step with contemporary efforts to undo mandatory minimum sentencing that worsened prison overcrowding and shifted power from judges to prosecutors.
- Supervisors will consider dividing $406,500 between two nonprofits to help international refugees find jobs, get plugged into social service and establish economic independence. The funding comes from a federal program established by the Refugee Act of 1980, which was designed to help people forced from their home country by violence or natural disaster to resettle in the U.S. In the South Bay, most refugees come from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Russia. A smaller number settling here came from Somalia, Burma and Congo. The two nonprofits in line to receive the funding to help them are the Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley and the International Rescue Committee.
- The Cambrian Park Plaza carousel, a revolving marquee at a mid-century shopping center in San Jose, is a vote away from becoming a historical landmark. “I was heartened by the report on the carousel’s significance,” said Supervisor Ken Yeager, who has been pushing for the designation all year. “It confirmed what I have long thought: that the carousel is a focal point for the entire Cambrian community. I hope my fellow board members will join me next week in giving this landmark the recognition that it deserves.”
WHAT: Board of Supervisors meets
WHEN: 9am Tuesday
WHERE: County Government Center, 70 W. Hedding St., San Jose
INFO: Clerk of the Board, 408.299.5001