Less is more in debate about prison population

Deputy justice minister Nebahat Albayrak during a visit to Krimpen aan de IJssel prison.
By Gert Van Langendonck

The Netherlands may be closing eight prisons, but not because of any lack of criminals, says researcher Ben Vollaard. There are plenty of criminals; they just don't end up in prison as much. Not everybody thinks this is a bad thing.

When deputy justice minister Nebahat Albayrak announced last month that the Netherlands is closing eight prisons and cutting 1,200 jobs in the prison system, she said the move was the result of a declining crime rate which experts expect to continue for a number of years.

While it cannot be denied that crime is down in the Netherlands compared to ten years ago, it does not fully explain the current surplus of prison cells, says University of Tilburg researcher Ben Vollaard, who has done extensive research into the subject.

"There is no lack of criminals in the Netherlands," says Vollaard, "Changes in the prison population, including the recent decline, are more a result of policy and sentencing changes than of the declining crime rate."

Drugs couriers

Deputy minister Albayrak could have said: the prison population is declining because judges are sending fewer people to prison. But that would have been politically unwise, says Vollaard. "Already some political parties are saying that those empty prison cells should not be closed but rather filled up with more criminals."

The Dutch prison system has capacity for 14,000 prisoners where only 12,000 places are currently needed. Even if a small increase is expected in 2012 - because of Dutch prisoners in foreign prisons returning to serve the remainder of their sentence in the Netherlands - the justice ministry says closing some prisons is warranted. The system already has a sufficient buffer because multiple occupancy cells are now being used for only one prisoner.

"We use a prognosis model that takes several factors into account," says justice ministry spokesman Job van de Sande. "The crime rate is one of those factors; the impact of policy changes such as our approach to drugs trafficking from the Caribbean is another."

Fewer sentences for drugs offences account for a quarter of the overall drop in effective prison sentences. This is mostly because of a new tactic against cocaine couriers from the Caribbean. Tougher checks on flights from Curacao airport have meant that more smugglers are arrested at the point of departure rather than at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport.

Community service

Vollaard offers another reason for the declining prison population: the increased use of community service as an alternative for prison sentences. A change in the law in 2001 made it possible for judges - and in some cases the public prosecutor's office itself - to impose community service for offences carrying an effective prison sentence of up to six months, whereas before community service could be substituted only for fines and suspended prison sentences.

The Dutch government, in subsequent years, actively encouraged community service as a humane - and less expensive - alternative for imprisonment. As Albayrak told parliament, prison has statistically been shown to be an inefficient tool in the fight against crime: 70 percent of all ex-prisoners commit another crime within seven years from their release. It is also an expensive one: the Dutch prison system (including closed centres for asylum seekers) now costs 1 billion euros per year.

As a result of government policy, the use of community service has climbed considerably, from 27,115 times in 2002 to 40,610 in 2007. In 2007, community service accounted for thirty percent of all judicial sentences; 20 percent resulted in an effective prison sentence, eight percent in an acquittal and 44 percent in other measures (electronic surveillance, fines and/or suspended sentences).

The justice ministry however maintains that the overall declining crime rate, especially for serious crime, is the main reason for the prison surplus. (Although it admits that armed robbery has actually increased.) The declining crime rate is a trend that can also be seen in surrounding countries, according to Van de Sande. Community service has had an influence too but a much smaller one, he says.

Lighter cases, lesser sentences

Vollaard does not deny that the declining crime rate is an important factor, but he says it has to be seen in conjunction with certain policy changes. "A decline in serious crime, including murder and manslaughter, together with political pressure to try more violent crime cases, has meant that more but lighter cases, carrying lesser sentences, have gone before the courts."

In the 2004-2007 period, the total length of prison sentences was down by a quarter; almost half of which is explained by shorter sentences for violent crime: from an average of 300 to 260 days per offence. (The other half was the result of less or shorter sentences for drugs and white collar crimes.) As a result, the prison population went down from 17,600 in 2005 to 14,500 in 2007.

At the same time, acquittals have gone up eighty percent, from 3,761 in 2002 to 6,833 in 2007 - something that Vollaard attributes to a combination of "sloppier police work, the fact that more suspects are pleading innocent, which puts the burden on technical evidence, and a more critical attitude on the part of the judges towards errors made by police and the public prosecutor."

The view from the US

An earlier article on NRC International about Albayrak's intention to close some of the prisons was widely read in the US, where many commentators were quick to assume that the Netherlands' perceived "lack of criminals" must be a result of its policy on drugs. But even if it is true that in the US many more people are sent to prison for drugs offences - some of which would have gone unpunished under the tolerant Dutch approach to soft drugs - it hardly explains why the Dutch prison population is down.

Vollaard: "In fact, it would be quite wrong to see the Dutch approach as somehow exemplary. Quite to the contrary: until recently the Netherlands was following the American example."

Before the recent decline, the Dutch prison population had actually more than tripled in the last 25 years. If the Netherlands once had a very low prison population compared to neighbouring countries, it did a very good job catching up during the 1990s. With one prisoner per 1,000 people the Netherlands has now overtaken Germany and France. (In the US one in 100 adults is locked up.)

Still, some opposition members of parliament think more not less prisoners is the way forward. "The government is trying to tell us that crime is down," said Fred Teeven of the right-wing liberal party VVD. "That's just not true: less criminals are being sent to jail. People are sent on their way with community service or are released under electronic surveillance far too soon."

But opposition attempts to amend Albayrak's prisons plan were all defeated on the floor. Van der Sande: "Deputy minister Albayrak pointed out that our current policy is the result of decisions taken by successive government cabinets, some of which included the VVD."

The debate about the declining prison population has something for everyone, it seems. Vollaard: "You can applaud it or deplore it, depending on what side of the debate you're on."

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