Skip to content
CityLab
Economy

Why America Has a Mass Incarceration Problem, and Why Germany and the Netherlands Don't

What Europe can teach the U.S. about criminal justice. 
relates to Why America Has a Mass Incarceration Problem, and Why Germany and the Netherlands Don't
REUTERS

To understand America's epidemic of over-incarceration, it helps to look to countries that don't having our problem. In Germany and the Netherlands, for example, incarceration rates per capita are nearly 90 percent lower than in the U.S.: 79 per 100,000 residents in Germany and 82 per 100,000 residents in the Netherlands, compared to 716 per 100,000 residents in the United States. 

As those numbers suggest, Germany and the Netherlands do things a bit differently. A recent report [PDF] from the Vera Institute of Justice explains that the differences are both philosophical and practical. "Resocialization" and rehabilitation are central to the Dutch and German models, whereas the American model focuses on retribution and isolation from society. In Germany and the Netherlands, this means prison conditions are more humane, fines are preferred over incarceration, solitary confinement is rarely used, and sentences are far shorter than in the U.S. Both European countries even have laws governing solitary confinement: it "cannot exceed in any given year four weeks in Germany and two weeks in the Netherlands per individual offender."