It sounds like the first line of a joke: "Three state corrections teams and some experts who are old hands at visiting prisons go to meet their warden counterparts in Germany and the Netherlands in mid-January to see what they could learn."
But it's a true story — and what high-level delegations from Colorado, Georgia, and Pennsylvania learned through the Vera Institute of Justice's European-American Prison Project is no laughing matter. What we learned, in fact, has serious and timely boots-on-the-ground implications.
Twenty years after the 1994 federal Crime Bill led to an upsurge in prison construction and punitive tough-on-crime sentencing measures, our national conversation around crime and punishment has shifted significantly. It is bipartisan. It is occurring in Congress and statehouses. Energy for reform is focused primarily on reducing sentence lengths, narrowing the population that goes to prison, and better preparing those who are leaving for reintegration.
A new report from the National Academy of Sciences, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, is an important marker highlighting the profound racial and ethnic dimensions of our system, one in which 34 percent of state and federal prisoners in 2011 were black, though they made up only 13 percent of the U.S. population in the last census; 22 percent were Latinos, who comprised 17 percent of the population. It is a criminal justice system that perpetuates a poverty trap in which black men under age 35 who do not finish high school are more likely to be behind bars than employed.