Finding Direction: U.S. Should Consider Other Nations’ Justice Policies

Report says adopting criminal justice practices of other countries could improve safety, cut costs in the U.S.

WASHINGTON, DC — With nearly 2.4 million people incarcerated in the United States, there is a growing consensus that more must be done to reduce prison populations and costs while still preserving public safety. According to the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), U.S. policymakers should look outside our borders for examples of criminal justice policies that can save money while improving the well-being of both individuals and communities.

Finding Direction: Expanding Criminal Justice Options by Considering Policies of Other Nations, a newly released report from JPI, examines the criminal justice policies of five nations – Australia, Canada, England and Wales, Finland and Germany –to provide policy options here in the United States.

“While naturally there are differences between these nations and the United States, there are enough significant similarities that U.S. policymakers should consider that some of their policies could work here,” noted Amanda Petteruti, associate director of JPI and principle author of Finding Direction. “Simply put, these nations handle law-breaking behavior in fundamentally different ways than the United States. Instead of relying heavily on incarceration, other countries successfully use community-based responses, treatment for addiction, and services to ensure that once a person is released from prison that he or she does not return. There is much to learn from their experience and policymakers would be wise to study examples of success across the globe.”

The data included in the report indicates that while other countries choose fines, community service, probation, or treatment, the U.S. is significantly more likely to give a sentence of incarceration, even though it is more expensive and does not produce lower victimization rates. Further, when incarceration is used in other nations, the average sentence length is significantly shorter, with no apparent increase in offense rates.

“The criminal justice policies of the United States over the past 30 years have failed,” said Will McMahon, policy director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies in London. “Instead of ensuring that people do not become justice-involved in the first place, the U.S. has instead invested in mass incarceration and needlessly lengthy terms of imprisonment without a significant benefit to public safety. The criminal justice policies of the United States should be avoided by other nations and serve as a harrowing example of the problem of an excessively punitive system.”

Finding Direction includes a series of recommendations and best practices drawn from policy choices from the comparison nations. Here are some of the key recommendations from the report:

  • Consider responses other than incarceration: Germany and Finland both use a day fine system based on the seriousness of the offense and apply proportional punishment on all people, regardless of socio-economic status. The fine is generally levied based on the amount of money a person earns on a given day and is meted out over a specified number of days.
  • End commercial bail: In the U.S., states like Oregon, Illinois, Kentucky, and Wisconsin abolished commercial bail, which allows for-profit companies to bond a person for the cost of pretrial release. By instead requiring people to personally make down-payments to the court which are refunded when they return to trial, public safety can be better protected and the number of people unnecessarily held pretrial can be reduced.
  • Provide more treatment for more people outside the criminal justice system: Treatment for drug addiction should be widely available outside the criminal justice system and affordable for people who need it. In cases in which the offense is related to the personal use of drugs, treatment should be the first response rather than incarceration.
  • Scale back sentence lengths, especially for drug offenses: No other comparison nation has mandatory sentencing for possession of small amounts of illegal substances. Such broad sentencing structures are significant contributors to the number of people in prison in the U.S. and are not the best or most cost-effective way to protect public safety.
  • Improve reentry services: Other nations successfully put into practice an approach to reentry that includes both mental and behavioral health, as well as sociological factors like housing, employment, and education. Such a holistic approach could be cost effective in terms of keeping people from returning to prison and improving life outcomes.
  • Raise the age of criminal responsibility and end transfers to adult courts: Other nations don’t consider children as young as six to be mature enough to be criminally responsible for their actions; raising the U.S. age would reduce the number of youth in secure custody in the U.S. and reinforce the concept that youth are not developmentally the same as adults and therefore should not be treated as such. Also, no other comparison nation transfers as many youth adult criminal courts as the United States at such young ages. This has a negative impact on community and individual well-being, as it decreases the chance a youth will be able to avoid future justice involvement and increases the risk of harm while in custody.
  • Invest in positive institutions: The U.S. would do well to prioritize spending on strengthening and expanding institutions like education and employment, especially as they have been shown to not only decrease incarceration, but also improve public safety.

“The United States incarcerates more people than any other nation and holds 25 percent of the world’s total imprisoned population,” said JPI executive director Tracy Velázquez. “As federal, state, and local governments are trying to make ends meet during particularly difficult economic times, they need to broadly rethink what options might be available to them. We hope this report helps policymakers re-imagine justice systems to save taxpayers money, treat people fairly and make us safer at the same time.”

Tapio Lappi-Seppälä, director of the National Research Institute of Legal Policy in Finland stated, “In the 1970s, Finland had the highest incarceration rate among the West-European countries. Costs were high, and overcrowding caused serious problems for inmates and the enforcement agencies. In addition nothing in our crime situation indicated that Finland should have two-to-three times more prisoners than our Nordic neighbors. In response, our legislators invested in public programs that improve communities and prevent justice involvement, and stopped choosing incarceration when other, less-restrictive options were appropriate. Now, Finland’s incarceration rate is just 60 people per 100,000. Finland and the other low-imprisonment Nordic countries, stand as an example of policies that have successfully replaced custodial interventions by community- and social prevention programs.”

To read the full report, executive summaries, and factsheets from Finding Direction: Expanding Criminal Justice Options by Considering Policies of Other Nations, CLICK HERE. For additional information, please contact Zerline Hughes at 202.558.7974 x 308 or [email protected] or Jason Fenster at 202.558.7974 x306 or [email protected].

The Justice Policy Institute, based in Washington, DC, is working to reduce the use of incarceration and the justice system and promoting policies that improve the well-being of all people and communities. For more information, please visit