In the Netherlands, the government looked at the facts and made some characteristically pragmatic decisions—and the prison population plummetedby Venetia Rainey / December 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
Back in 2006, the Netherlands was charging down the same road as Britain with the second-highest prison population rate in Europe, with 125 prisoners per 100,000 population. A decade later, the Dutch are down to Scandinavian levels, with a prisoner population rate of 69. This dramatic fall has presented the Netherlands with an unusual problem: what to do with its now empty prisons. In the last five years 19 out of 58 prisons have closed down—repurposed as asylum centres, sold off to become hotels or property developments or even rented out to other countries.
What happened in the last 10 years in the Netherlands and, most importantly, can other countries—namely the crisis-hit UK— learn from it? The answer is: it’s complicated.
“At first sight it’s a very simple story,” explained Francis Pakes, a professor in Criminology at the University of Portsmouth and an expert in Dutch prisons and criminal justice. “The starting point is that crime has gone down, so prisoner numbers should go down.” Falling crime only goes so far though. The Dutch government has done something most others haven’t: looked at the facts and made some characteristically pragmatic decisions.
One element is the shift in sentencing attitudes, linked to a change in the types of criminals.
“You see more and more people with mental illnesses and a lower mental development,” said Pauline Schuyt, a professor of penal law and sentencing at Leiden University. Consequentially, judges have placed greater emphasis on alternatives such as psychological treatment, electronic tagging and suspended sentencing. “Five or 10 years ago they were just putting people in jail, now they are trying to solve problems.”
Part of the story is also statistical, and to understand the prisoner number drop it’s also important to note what caused that 2006 peak, most notably that several years of stricter screening
at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport had resulted in an explosion in people imprisoned for drug trafficking. Additionally, the Netherlands saw a glut of prison building in the 1990s, leaving it with extra spaces to spare now that prisoner numbers are down and allowing for a headline-grabbing spate of closures.
But there’s also something deeper at play. During the Second World War, many Dutch intellectuals experienced jail first-hand after being imprisoned by the occupying Nazis. When the war ended, they set about addressing prison conditions with laws governing the rights of inmates, leading to what Schuyt calls a “strong tradition of lawmaking for prison people.” Some date this progressive attitude back even further to the 16th and 17th centuries. Anastasia Karamalidou, in her book Embedding Human Rights in Prison: English and Dutch Perspectives, points to the country’s historic pragmatism and politics of accommodation as a driving force behind post-war penal policy in the Netherlands.
The result was a “really humane” system from the 1950s to the 1970s, said Schuyt. That regressed into something harsher from the 1980s but is now slowly returning again. Regardless, the effect overall is positive. The re-offending rate is relatively low, with just 30 per cent of inmates back in prison within two years of being released and violent incidents rare, on average just one every two days last year. Inmates can even call staff by their first name, an unthinkable idea in some countries.
For Monique Schippers, Director of Prison Affairs, one of the cornerstones of an effective prison system is training staff to be in close daily contact with the inmates, building trust and enabling officers to de-escalate situations more easily. “We say the mouth is the weapon. That’s one of the best ways to ensure a safe and secure environment for everyone.”
Read the companion piece: Britain’s prisons are failing and the government has no plan