DA Jeff Rosen Reports Back on His 2015 Tour of German Prisons

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.

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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.

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.

More from the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors agenda for August 30, 2016:

  • 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

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. So the Bandwagon starts rolling: California’s stupid citizens didn’t know what they were doing when they voted in Prop 184—by 72 percent. That ‘3-strikes’ initiative overqualified for the ballot with more than 800,000 signatures.

    Prior to the 3-strikes law there were approximately 160,000 convicted criminals in California prisons. With 3-strikes it’s less than 120,000 now. And the original law has been modified, via the passage of Prop 47:

    Prop 47 exempted prior 3-strike crimes such as drug offenses including heroin, meth and cocaine possession, armed robbery, carjacking, residential burglary, and assault with a deadly weapon—even though But prosecutors already had the discretion in charging repeat offenders with minor crimes.

    Now the George Soros-funded Prop 57 bandwagon has come to town, even though Prop 57 is never mentioned in this chameleon article. But Prop 57 is what this article is all about. So, what would Prop 57 do?

    If passed, Prop 57 would classify these crimes: rape by intoxication, rape of an unconscious person, human (slave) trafficking involving sex act with minors, drive-by shootings, assault with a deadly weapon, taking a hostage, domestic violence involving trauma, possession of a bomb or weapon of mass destruction, hate crime causing physical injury, arson causing great bodily injury, discharging a firearm on school grounds, corporal injury to a child, false imprisonment of an elderly person, and many other violent crimes—as non-violent crimes (?!?!??), for which early release would be possible (and that is just a partial list of the crimes that would be deemed ‘non-violent’).

    The commenters here who went ballistic over Brock whats-his-name getting what they called a lenient sentence for ‘strike one’ should note that rape by intoxication and rape of an unconscious person would be elegible for early release. Gov. Brown’s message: Go, Brock!

    Gov Brown has a long history of believing he’s smarter than the electorate. He appointed Rose Byrd as a state Supreme Court justice. But not just any justice; Brown appointed her as Chief Justice, even though she had never served a day as a judge. Brown wanted to overturn the voters’ routine upholding of the death penalty, and Byrd complied by overturning every death penalty case that came before her court. But when she came up for re-election, the state’s citizens dumped her.

    Now Brown and Soros are trying once more to overturn the will of the voters. So if ‘Brock’ skates, you can thank them. It’s just collateral damage, you see. Moonbeam and the world’s richest self-serving ‘social engineer’ have $25 million banked and ready to convince the hoi polloi to turn loose tens of thousands of what they call NON-VIOLENT convicted criminals.

    If you like being disrespected, then vote the way Brown and his financier pal George tell you to vote. They want California voters to pass this über-stupid initiative, and they’re trying to buy the vote.

    But for folks who still have their self respect, and who understand the consequences of taking tens of thousands of convicted criminals out of prison, and releasing them into our neighborhoods… please VOTE NO on Gov. Moonbeam’s latest end-run around the will of the voters, who still think that locking up career criminals is the best way to stop their future crimes.

    Yeah, this article is about Prop 57. They just didn’t tell the readers.

    • > after holding him in contempt of court for allegedly violating an order made by his family law judge to not speak or write about matters relating to his family law case. Joe was jailed for BUILDING AND POSTING TO A WEBSITE.

      Sounds awful.

      Could some kindly lawyer explain what constitution limitations there are on judges in imposing orders NOT to write or speak?

      I don’t understand the judge’s premises or prerogatives.

  2. Yes, let’s copy Germany, whose criminal justice system reached out across the Atlantic, extradited a 66 year old Canadian resident for the crime of expressing a verboten view of history, and kept him in prison for five years.

    In 2003, Ernst Zundel was arrested without warrant on American soil and, without a hearing, deported to Canada where he sat in absolute isolation for over two years. Despite his forty year history in Canada as a taxpayer and peaceful resident (no criminal priors), and the FBI’s report that deemed him of no threat to the public, Zundel was declared a danger and extradited to Germany (his birthplace) for prosecution. During the trial, the state claimed the right to prosecute for speech violations posted on foreign websites no matter the laws of that land.

    Zundel, denied the right to defend his speech for its truth, was convicted and, just for good measure, so was his lawyer (Sylvia Stolz was sent to prison for allowing some of that forbidden history to slip from her lips during her spirited defense of her client). In the German prison system they joined untold other dangerous thinkers and speakers.

    Quite the fine example of jurisprudence, one I have no reason to doubt Mr. Rosen, an enthusiastic proponent of hate crime prosecutions, would love the chance to emulate. God help us all.

  3. Mr. Rosen goes to Germany, of all places, to study their prison system ?!?). What’s next, studying dentistry in England?

    What does he expect to find in a country (Germany) who in the mid 80’s used live people as human crash test dummies? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWy0hHHECdM. These “volunteers” were reportedly people convicted of misdemeanor crimes who “volunteered” to be human crash test dummies in exchange for having their sentences and/or fines reduced.

    What’s next, a reality/games show, “Germany’s Most Disturbing Home Videos” http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x9p5ey_sprockets-germany-s-most-disturbing_shortfilms?GK_FACEBOOK_OG_HTML5=1

  4. I would think Mr Rosen might like to study China’s prison system as they have cut cost there by selling inmate organs
    for transplants.

    North Korea has been sell political prisoners to the Russians to cut firewood.

    ISIS will put you in a cage and set fire to you, or if they want to be nice will just cut your head off and place it on your butt.

    I understand that law enforcement is much easier in these places as few people want to commit crimes and repeat offenders are practically non existent.

    On the other hand wouldn’t it be great if we could extradite George Soros to Indonesia!

  5. Yeah, let’s compare a country consisting of 92% of european white folks that borders Austria to the south (scary place if you know what I mean) with a melting pot of USA gumbo with virtually non-existent southern border that helps with maintaining our prison populus as high as it is, year in year out with 37% of federal sentences in FY 2014 alone.

    This gives Apples & Oranges a whole new meaning…

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