Germany: Low Crime, Clean Prisons, Lessons for America | Jeff Rosen | TEDxMountainViewHighSchool

Germany: Low Crime, Clean Prisons, Lessons for America | Jeff Rosen | TEDxMountainViewHighSchool

September 30, 2019 79 By Stanley Isaacs


Translator: Leonardo Silva
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven 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. (Chuckles) 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 billions a year
alone in California. In fact, California is 1 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 fifty-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 straighforward 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,” (Laughter) 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 (Hebrew), 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. Thank you. (Applause)