Comparative Law, Criminal Law, Police and Prosecutors, Policy, Racial Discrimination, True Crime

What’s the Ethnic Composition of German Prisons?

Whenever I speak with a certain type of German, the conversation turns to crime in America, and it goes a little like this:

German: You Americans are quite racist. Your prisons are full of minorities!

Me: So are yours.

German: What? I don’t think so. That sounds racist. Do you have any proof?

Me: The first thing I’d like to point out is that you seem to be more concerned with who goes to prison in a country 7000km away than who goes to prison right here in your own backyard. I wonder why that might be? But sure, proof: I’ve been to some German prisons and taken a look around. And I’ve spoken to dozens of lawyers and judges. And read academic studies.

German (after a pause): Well, those are just anecdotes. Where are the official government statistics on the ethnicity of prisoners in Germany?

Me: There aren’t any. German only records whether prisoners have foreign nationality, not whether they have an immigration background. But even that limited information shows that foreigners are 25-30% of the prison population, and thus overrepresented by about 2-3x in the prison population compared to their share of the overall population, (depending on location).

German: See! So you can’t prove your point with official government statistics, the only proof I will accept!

Me: The only reason I can’t is that the government intentionally fails to collect those statistics.

German: Well, of course, because we Germans learned a painful lesson about how wrong it is to keep track of citizens’ ethnicities. Jews were rounded up using that information. So we don’t even collect it.

Me: If you believe that’s the real reason, I’ve got a bridge you might be interested in buying. The real reason Germany doesn’t collect these statistics is because they would reveal that persons with an immigration background are massively overrepresented in the prison population. 70-80% of prisoners in Germany are not of German ancestry. Incidentally, France and Sweden and most other Continental countries intentionally fail to collect this information for the same reason.

German: Well, even if I accept that — and I still want to see the official government statistics, me being a German and all — then it must be because, tragically, those minorities just commit more crimes than ethnic Germans. A complicated, many-sided problem.

Me: I agree! But we started this conversation with your assumption that any overrepresentation of minorities in prisons is a sign of racism.

German: Well, uh, there are certainly…I didn’t really say that, there are historical factors….

Me: Nah, you’re just applying a double standard. Any overrepresentation of minorities in prisons in the USA is mostly due to racism; any overrepresentation in Germany is mostly due to certain groups of foreigners committing more crimes.

German: So what’s your point?

Me: My point is that both Germany and the USA and dozens of European countries show the exact same pattern of overrepresentation of certain minorities in the justice system. Nobody gets to ride a high horse here. Ths is a pattern that holds in every Western country. The only difference is that the USA gathers objective data and shares it with the public, openly acknowledging the phenomenon. That’s called transparency. Germans try to cover it up by failing to gather the information and shouting down anyone who points out the problem.

The conversation usually ends here. Next week it’s happens all over again: “Hey Andrew, why are your prisons are full of…”. Shower, rinse, repeat.

In my view, there are two reasons for this taboo, and neither of them has anything to do with persecution under National Socialism. First, the overrepresentation raises the question of whether the German justice system treats minorities unfairly. Do they get the same sentence for the same crime as ethnic Germans? You would need a careful study which controls for dozens of factors and has a broad sample size. These studies are performed all the time in the USA, revealing solid evidence of discrimination in prison sentencing. And guess what? Focusing attention on the problem is helping solve it! Racial disparities in sentencing similarly-situated defendants for similar crimes are dropping in some parts of the USA, because judges, voters, and lawmakers have now become aware of the problem and are taking effective action:

How many more months in prison do federal courts give Black drug offenders as opposed to comparable White offenders? The correct answer, through fiscal 2018, is: zero. The racial disparity in federal drug-crime sentencing, adjusted for severity of the offense and offender characteristics such as criminal history, shrank from 47 months in 2009 to nothing in 2018, according to a new research paper by sociologist Michael Light of the University of Wisconsin. For federal crimes of all types, there is still a Black-White discrepancy, but it, too, has shrunk, from 34 months in 2009 to less than six months in 2018.

A defendant’s ancestry or skin color, of course, should play no role whatsoever in the sentence he receives. And thanks to transparency and vigorous public debate, the USA is making slow but steady progress toward that goal.

Not Germany. You need a systemic nationwide study to determine which locales are sending proportionally more minorities to prison for comparable crimes, why they do this, and what can be done about it. Yet, to my knowledge, nobody has ever gotten funding for such a broad-scale study in Germany, although smaller-scale studies do exist. Even expressing interest in why so may minorities are in German prisons will earn you pushback from both the left (why are you associating minorities with crime? You sound like an AfD member) and the center-right (splitting up people in racial categories is not how we do things here in Europe). This is one of those rare instances in which both the left and right join forces to enforce a taboo. And that makes for a pretty strong taboo!

Second, it raises questions about German immigration policy. If Germany is allowing immigration from groups which tend to end up in prison at unusually high rates, that’s a situation which needs to be studied and resolved. Also, if something like 40% of German prison inmates are naturalized citizens, that would seem to be a sign that more background checks need to be performed on people before granting them German citizenship. But of course if polite society puts a taboo on even mentioning excess incarceration of minorities, no progress can be made.

That’s why I was amused at this Reddit AMA from a guy who’s a German prison guard. He describes all sorts of interesting things about German prisons — drugs, violence, corruption — but someone intervened to ask the fateful question:

Q: “How many prisoners have an immigration background?”

A: 70-80% of them. However, many of them have a German passport, so you would have to count them out. Theoretically.”

There it is, ladies and gentlemen, right from the horse’s mouth.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.