Josef Fritzl, an Austrian man who has been in the news lately for apparently locking his daughter in the basement “dungeon” of his home for 24 years, faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted of his crimes, according to the Associated Press. The brevity of his potential sentence highlights a major difference between the United States’ corrections system and those in many European countries.
To an American, a jail term shorter than the amount of time Fritzl held his daughter prisoner hardly seems fair. In fact, overcrowded prisons and world-record high incarceration rates act as proof that those of us stateside are accustomed to seeing serious criminals handed serious sentences.
But the penal systems in many European countries act differently. Few criminals receive life sentences (even for serial murders), and those who do rarely serve them completely. European systems tend to emphasize rehabilitation of criminals over punishment. As a result, European countries have much lower incarceration rates than the United States.
The recent passage of the Second Chance Act marked a slight shift in U.S. criminal corrections: for the first time since the enactment of “get-tough” sentencing laws in the 1970s and 1980s, the federal government is beginning to focus more on rehabbing criminals it has traditionally only punished.