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The number of prisoners in The Netherlands has halved in a decade and experts say alternative sentencing programs can further decrease the number.
Walking along the corridors of the creative work space that is housed inside the Wolvenplein prison, reminders of the building’s long history are everywhere. The heavy cell doors with tiny break-proof windows now lead to small offices. When tenants sit outside on their lunch break, they look out on the thick brick walls topped with barbed wire. In the kitchenette, instruction posters next to a large sink offer a step-by-step guide to drug-testing urine samples.
For 158 years, this was where the central Dutch city of Utrecht sent its prisoners. And then five years ago – along with almost half of the country’s prisons – it shut down.
Four prisons closed
Last year, the Dutch government decided to close four more prisons. Some of the now-empty buildings are being sold off, while others offer temporary shelter for refugees. One former prison in Amsterdam even housed a Syrian refugee-run pop-up restaurant before it was demolished last year.
A drop in the country’s crime rate in part explains why the Netherlands‘ prisons are emptying. A 2016 government study on capacity also noted that a focus on sentencing, with both an increase in shorter sentences and examining how crimes impact society, have helped reduce the prison population.
The Netherlands now has just 61 prisoners per 100,000 people in the general population, ranking among the lowest in Europe. [The Canadian figure is 114 according to the same source.] The Dutch justice department predicts that their total prison population will continue to drop over the next few years.
“Compared to the U.S., Dutch judges are much less likely to give a prison sentence. More often they give a financial penalty or community service,” says Hilde Wermink, assistant professor of criminology at Leiden University. “They decide on a case-by-case basis to assess whether a prison sentence is appropriate or in fact harmful.”
Research Questions Long Prison Sentences
Dutch criminology researchers for years have pointed to the effectiveness of alternative sentencing. In 2013, Wermink and colleagues concluded that prison is not an effective way to reduce crime, and a study from last year showed that longer prison sentences in particular are not leading to lower crime rates. Both community service and electronic monitoring yield better results. Although the latter is sometimes seen as a softer punishment, Wermink and colleagues found it actually decreases re-offending rates.
“We do already know that prison has a negative effect on employability. Often it also destabilizes family situations. And the ‘prison as a school of crime’ theory could have an influence, especially when prison re-affirms someone’s criminal identity.”
Intervention Programs Help
For those who do end up in prison, innovative intervention programs are aimed at breaking the re-offending cycle. In one Dutch community, a non-profit organization (Prison Care Netherlands) runs a program that invites future employers into prison to meet prisoners. In preparation for release, prisoners participating in the Compagnie project are allowed to work outside prison, often doing more-meaningful work than the repetitive labor programs inside. They return to cook and do household chores together with other inmates and take part in evening activities before cell doors lock for the night. This program has helped many prisoners find employment and stable housing.
At the Compagnie, contact with the outside world is encouraged. Inmates are allowed to Skype home to read bedtime stories to their children and in some way stay connected to family life. Wardens call inmates by their first name rather than surname. To come to terms with their past, inmates attend therapeutic sessions in which crime victims come in to share the impact the offense had on their lives.
The Key to Determining Sentencing
And that, ironically, is where the problem lies, says Peter van der Laan, a professor and senior researcher at the Dutch Study Centre for Crime and Law Enforcement. Van der Laan says the average prison time in the Netherlands is much too short to be able to run meaningful reintegration projects. Fifty-five percent of all custodial sentences in the Netherlands are for less than one month, and three-quarters of all sentences are shorter than three months. In practice, this means that pre-trial custody often outlasts the eventual sentence.
“The Dutch judicial approach to prison is that the taking away of freedom itself is the punishment,” van der Laan says. [The Supreme Court of Canada has made the same statement in relation to this country.] “Therefore, once inside a prisoner should be treated humanely, and his treatment should not be a form of punishment, too.” Yet the first stages of imprisonment can be traumatic, he says, with prisoners facing significant risk of suffering mental health issues.
“When we lock people away for very short periods, they have less or no opportunity to join employment or education programs,” he says. “But there is lots of ‘detention damage’ — even a few weeks can be enough to lose a job, home and social relations.”
Instead, van der Laan says judges should aim to reduce the number of short sentences. “The first consideration is: Is there a direct danger to the general public if this person is not imprisoned? In the vast majority of cases, this is not the case,” he says, noting that many cases involve nonviolent crimes. “If the risk of direct danger is low, they should suspend pre-trial detention where possible.”
To change the public perception of “soft punishment” of criminals, it is crucial that governments and the judiciary explain their approach, van der Laan says. Retribution can be a legitimate punishment, he says, but policymakers must be pragmatic and economical.
“Why do we punish in the first place?” he asks. “If the goal is to reduce crime, we know that prison often does not deliver that. And if delinquents suffer from addiction problems or mental illness, pre-custodial sentencing certainly does not help with that.”