I've been doing some reading about prison systems and sentences in Europe, more specifically The Netherlands and Germany. It helps us to identify an elephant that's been sitting in the middle of our room for years: What do we really hope to accomplish with our present system of incarceration?
If we're looking for retribution, if punishment is our goal, and if we're thinking that it's biblical to seek an eye for an eye, we're doing things exactly right. Prison in the U.S. is hell. There's little attempt at rehabilitation. Because they're “just prisoners,” we don't worry about quality or quantity of food. Meals very often are very terrible. Medical care in most prisons is marginal, as private healthcare services worry about the bottom line. Solitary confinement, though proven to be psychologically damaging, is rampant. Parole Boards often assume the role of sentencing judge and keep inmates behind bars far longer than early release dates. Punishment, you bet. And then we wonder why the recitivism rate is so high.
I started looking into the Dutch prison sentences after a native of the old country recently told me that the sentence there for first degree murder was 7 years, compared to life without parole here.
I was astounded at not only the difference in philosophy between these European countries and ours, but by the incredible difference in statistics. The ratio of incarcerated per 100,000 people is far lower than ours...far, far lower! And yet crime is not rampant in these countries.
I found that prisoners there are treated like human beings. Specially trained staff do their best to try to help these inmates to get their lives back together again. Prisoners are given private time. Many are allowed to prepare their own meals. There are programs in place to get them back on track, and for good reason. These people are going to re-enter society. The purpose of imprisonment is to separate these people from society, not to punish. The goal is to make them productive citizens.
One person was quoted as saying, “If we want these people to act like humans, we must treat them like humans.”
My first reaction was to claim that this is the Christian approach, because I do this work in the name of Jesus.
But regardless of what you believe, it's the humane approach.
And if statistics and track records are worth anything, they demonstrate that we're doing it all wrong.