The Pope's “European” Approach to Criminal Justice


When he addressed the United Nations during his visit to the U.S. last month, Pope Francis touched on many of the issues he has put high on his agenda elsewhere—especially in his visits to European nations.

Speaking to the European Union parliament last year, for example, he discussed the challenges posed by the huge migrant flows from the Middle East, the struggle against poverty and inequality, and the crisis in human values.

But in the U.S., he spent time on criminal justice—an issue he has hardly mentioned in other papal visits. Speaking to the U.S. Congress, he condemned the use of the death penalty and, in a visit to a Philadelphia jail, he called for greater attention to the rehabilitation of prisoners.

The difference in focus—to a European like myself—was hard to miss.

There's a good reason why criminal justice has never been part of the Pope's homilies in Western Europe.

The death penalty, for example, is abolished in every European country—with the exception of Belarus. Russia put the death penalty under moratorium in 1996, with an act signed by former President Boris Yeltsin. The last Russian execution happened that year.

The European Union has one of the strongest positions among the global community against the capital punishment. No nation can enter the EU unless it strikes capital punishment from its criminal code. The EU's anti-capital punishment position was the first human rights guideline adopted by the European Council in 1998.

Things weren't always so clear-cut in Europe. Although bans on capital punishment were introduced in some regions as early as the 18th century (Tuscany in 1748), during the interwar years the death penalty was applied widely by fascist regimes. After World War 2, however, a continent that was emotionally and physically damaged no longer wanted the state to be an executioner. By the middle of the last century, nearly all Western European countries had abolished the death penalty—and they were soon followed by the former Communist satellites in eastern Europe.

As for prisons, while Europeans and Americans agree in principle that they serve as tools for ensuring the protection of society, European policies are dramatically different.

The figures make it clear. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 716 Americans were incarcerated for every 100,000 people in 2012. Most European nations come nowhere close. According to EUROSTAT (the European Union Statistics Agency), the EU-28 average stood at 128 prisoners per 100,000.

In many countries it is much lower. In the Netherlands, for example, the incarceration rate is around ten times less than the U.S.: 76 prisoners per 100,000 in 2013, according to the UK-based International Center for Prison Studies.

The Dutch Ministry of Justice announced in 2014 plans to close 19 prisons because of the lack of prisoners, and the Dutch have taken their entrepreneurial spirit a step further by renting some of their empty cells to other European countries, such as Belgium, that have a shortage of prison space—earning millions of euros for the “service.”

(At the same time, the number of crimes recorded in the Netherlands declined by 35 per cent between 2005 and 2012.)

The Dutch are not “soft” on crime, as they might say in the U.S. But their criminal justice system is focused on rehabilitation. Offenders convicted of less serious crimes can choose electronic tagging instead of incarceration, which enables them to work.

Many minor crimes are handled with fines adjusted to income. A similar approach has been adapted in Germany.

German prison conditions would sound odd to any American. John Jay College President Jeremy Travis and Nick Turner, head of the Vera Institute of Justice, wrote the following in a recent New York Times Op Ed essay after they participated in a tour of the German prison system:

The men serving time wore their own clothes, not prison uniforms. When entering their cells, they slipped out of their sneakers and into slippers. They lived one person per cell. Each cell was bright with natural light, decorated with personalized items such as wall hangings, plants, family photos and colorful linens brought from home. Each cell also had its own bathroom separate from the sleeping area and a phone to call home with. The men had access to communal kitchens, with the utensils a regular kitchen would have, where they could cook fresh food purchased with wages earned in vocational programs.

There is nothing special about the German approach. You can see similar scenes even in the former Communist countries of the Balkans, as I found when I visited a prison in Slovenia during research on a story for the Macedonian TV magazine “Eurozoom.”

A few critics say some countries have gone too far. A few years ago, photos of Norwegian prisoners relaxing on a lakefront beach in Norway triggered accusations that offenders were living in “luxury.” Those prisoners, in any case, were closely guarded.

But let's put aside the cozy furniture, the beaches and the hot showers. The key difference in the European approach is the emphasis on rehabilitation and re-socialization. Most of Europe's correctional systems offer prisoners opportunities to study, to work, to train, and to learn new skills or improve old ones.

There is still plenty to criticize. Not every state in Europe has postcard prisons. While our homicide rates are low in Macedonia, we struggle with the inhuman practices that sometimes lead to torture in our prisons.

It might be our communist past or our uncertain future, but in my career in journalism I have lost count of the number of articles I've written on the abuses that still exist. When my own country, Macedonia, became a candidate country for membership in the EU in 2005, we had to introduce serious reforms in our justice system.

We're still a long way from fulfilling the human rights principles that the Pope called on us to observe.

But we are also a long way from the U.S. approach. Even as I am impressed by the efforts underway here to focus on rehabilitation, and to close prisons, I believe Americans could take some lessons from Europe in this regard.

Many Americans argue that the situations are very different, and even reformers concede that reducing prison populations here will require some tough choices.

The discussion has preoccupied U.S. criminologists, legislators and advocates. But only the emergence of a popular consensus to make those hard choices—-as there has been in Europe—will make reform a reality.

It may take an outsider like the Pope to encourage more ordinary Americans to go outside their comfort zone on criminal justice issues—just as he has pushed Europeans to overcome their prejudices and stereotypes about migrants.

“This time in your life can only have one purpose,” he told prisoners at the Philadelphia jail. “To give you a hand in getting back on the right road, to give you a hand to help you rejoin society.”

Europeans have long since accepted the point. Will Americans?

Saska Cvetkovska is an investigative journalist from Skopje, Macedonia. She is currently working with the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College on a four-month IREX journalist fellowship. She welcomes comments from readers.

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