By Christopher Zoukis

The British government scored a popular victory against the European Court of Human Rights last month, when the British Court of Appeals ruled “whole-life” prison sentences legal.

The legality of such sentences, intended for the most heinous murders, has been in dispute since July 2013, when the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights decided, in the Vinter case, that “whole-life” sentences without hope or possibility of release, contravene Article 3 of the convention, which prohibits “inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.”

The sentencing of a number of convicted murders has been on hold ever since, pending review by the British Court of Appeal, including those of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebwale, who were found guilty of brutally murdering British soldier Lee Rigby on a South London street in May 2013.

On February 18, 2014, the Court of Appeal rejected the European Court of Human Rights’ decision, arguing that Section 30 of the Crimes (Sentences) Act of 1997 allows a life-sentence prisoner to appeal to the Home Secretary, under exceptional circumstances, for release on compassionate grounds, thus providing the hope or possibility of release required by the Court of Human Rights, and confirming the legality of “whole-life” sentences.

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Dianne Frazee-Walker

Imagine a perfect world where the recidivism rate is low, prisons are not overcrowded, and offenders are rehabilitated.  The correctional system in some European countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands have made this a reality. 

In February, a group of American corrections officials, judges, prosecutors and public defenders conducted research that proves the United States has a lot to learn from European countries about correctional rehabilitation. The group took the initiative and took a trip to Europe to investigate what was working for European prisons. The differences they discovered between the European and American penal system were astounding.

Germany and the Netherlands incarcerate one-tenth the rate of the U.S., where sentencing time is considerably longer. These American judicial officials spent a week visiting prisons in Germany and the Netherlands. The consensus was that the determining factor for these European countries’ success is their approach is directed more towards social reintegration than punishment.   

A new report based on the group’s findings indicates that the failing American prison system has a hopeful chance of recuperating from the faltering situation it is in by adopting some of the European penal procedures that are working.

Practices in Germany and the Netherlands allows inmates to prepare for release ready to face the world as productive citizens. During the time inmates are serving their sentences they are allowed a significant amount of discretion over their lives.

Inmates are granted individual privacy and the privilege of making their own decisions about their lives. Some can wear their own clothes and cook their own meals.

Interaction with correctional officers is respectful. Prison staff are educated to use innovative management and conflict resolution skills along with security training.

Germany and the Netherlands use incarceration only when appropriate. Community-service programs, probation or fines are alternatives to prison time. American prisons impose much longer prison sentences than European countries. While the average state prison term in the United States is about three years, more than 90 percent of Dutch sentences and 75 percent of German sentences are 12 months or less.

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