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Criminal Justice Reform in the US

Over the past few years, Berlin has become a European favorite for scholars, practitioners, and politicians from the United States who are working to humanize the criminal justice system. The main issues are the inclusion of young adults in juvenile criminal law, the humanization of the penal system, and the abandonment of the death penalty and absurdly long prison sentences. At the Freie Universität Berlin Carsten Momsen and Kirstin Drenkhahn are supporting the underlying movement. In Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania Frieder Dünkel from the Universität Greifswald is an avid supporter. Moreover, the prison departments of the Senate Department for Justice, Consumer Protection and Anti-Discrimination Berlin and the Ministry of Justice Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania are involved in the movement. 

Why Berlin and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania?

It all started with a visit to Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern organised by the Vera Institute in New York in the summer of 2015, including visits to Heidering Prison and Neustrelitz Prison. Reports about this visit (see e.g.: "How Germany does Prison") have also sparked interest among other organisations and people working on prison reform. Meanwhile, we at the FU are also involved in this exchange. In addition to colleagues from US universities, we have hosted several other groups.

Fair and Just Prosecutors visiting Berlin, May 7-12 2019 

From 7 to 12 May 2019, a delegation of the non-profit organisation "Fair and Just Prosecution - FJP" was in Berlin and also visited us at the Freie Universität Berlin. In addition to members of FJP, the group includes 14 district attorneys from various states. The group includes well-knows prosecutors such as Satana Deberry, District Attorney, Durham County, North Carolina; T.J. Donovan, Attorney General of the State of Vermont; Seema Gajwani, the Special Counsel for Juvenile Justice Reform in the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, who was instrumental in reforming the age limits in juvenile justice; and Eric Gonzalez, who, as the lead District Attorney in Kings County, New York (Brooklyn), initiated far-reaching reforms in law enforcement and sanctions. These and the other members of the group are experienced prosecutors whose common interest is to learn about alternatives to mass incarceration and very long prison sentences for both adults and juveniles in order to implement appropriate reforms in their agencies.

In March, Prof. Carsten Momsen had given the group an overview of the system of prosecution and sanctioning in Germany at a meeting in New York. In Berlin, the group was supervised by Prof. Kirstin Drenkhahn.

On 8 May 2019 from 16:30 to 18:30, Room 3302 (Bo3), Liz Komar gave a presentation on "Basics of the US CJS (esp. plea bargaining vs. jury trial and the consequences for sentencing, sentencing for minors)". Liz Komar is Director of Innovations and Site Learning at Fair and Just Prosecution and at the renowned Center for Court Innovation in Manhattan. 

Students visiting Berlin from the University of Notre Dame/Indiana, October 17 2016 

In October 2016, a group of students from the psychology and architecture programmes of the University of Notre Dame/Indiana visited the department with their professors Anre Venter und Lucien Steil. Prof. Dr. Frieder Dünkel (University of Greifswald), who had coordinated the trip, and Kirstin Drenkhahn introduced the group to German correctional law. In the afternoon, we visited Heidering Prison in Großbeeren.

Visit of the Columbia Justice Lab with a group from Massachusetts, March 25-30 2018 

In March 2018, a group of politicians and practitioners from Massachusetts visited Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The visit was organised by the Columbia Justice Lab and Frieder Dünkel. The group was particularly interested in the involvement of young adults in juvenile criminal law and treatment in the penal system. An introduction to German juvenile criminal law was given by Frieder Dünkel and Kirstin Drenkhahn at the Freie Universität Berlin Law Department on 26 March 2018.

Prof. Momsen visits the „Center for Court Innovation“

On October 2 2018 Prof. Momsen visited the  "Center For Court Innovation“ and the „Fair and Just Prosecution“ (FJP) project in New York City. Together with John Butler Liz Komar from FJP, Prof. Momsen prepared the visit of five members of the FJP project to Berlin in November and discussed strategies to avoid imprisonment and the negative impact of deprivation of liberty on the families of those in prison.

Fair and Just Prosecutors visiting Berlin , 14.-16.11.2018

From 14.11.-16.11.2018, a five-member team from the "Fair and Just Prosecution" project founded in New York (and Los Angeles) visited Profs. Drenkhahn and Momsen in Berlin.

This non-profit organisation works closely with the renowned "Center for Court Innovation" in New York and aims to familiarise newly elected district attorneys with alternatives to the penal system, but also alternative forms of enforcement. The USA has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Sentences are disproportionately long with an upward trend and are also carried out on juveniles and (under German law) children, as well as on those sentenced with limited culpability. In some states, this also applies to the death penalty. In addition, long sentences are sometimes imposed for minor offences and excessive use is made of pre-trial detention. This often leads to existential hardship for the families of the accused. The prisons, some of which are privately run and profit-oriented, depend on the highest possible number of prisoners. All this does not lead to a reduction in crime. On the contrary.

The project aims to counteract these negative effects. The guests from New York were first informed about the procedure, enforcement and execution in Germany. Afterwards, the programme included talks with representatives of the authority, the juvenile court assistance, the Moabit prison administration and others. A visit by a larger delegation of district attorneys and prosecutors is planned for next spring.

The "Fair and Just Prosecutors" cooperate with New York University (NYU) and Columbia University as well as with New York Law School (NYLS).