Source: US News & World Report, 13 May 2019

The number of prisoners in the country has halved in a decade and experts say alternative sentencing programs can further decrease the number.

by Danielle Batist

UTRECHT, NETHERLANDS – 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.

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. The former Bijlmerbajes prison complex 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, says Wiebe Alkema, spokesperson at the Ministry of Justice and Security.

The Netherlands now has just 61 prisoners per 100,000 people in the general population, ranking among the lowest in Europe. In comparison, the United States has more than 10 times that figure (655 per 100,000), the highest in the world, according to data from the World Prison Brief, an online database hosted by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at the University of London. The Dutch justice department predicts that by 2023, the total prison population will drop to just 9,810 people.

“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. A 2015 study compared detainees in Belgium with sentences of between six months and three years, and found that the subjects who completed their sentence at home wearing detectable ankle bracelets were less likely to reoffend than peers who had completed their sentence behind bars.

Research into the reasons for this is ongoing, says Wermink, who participates in the Prison Project, a study examining the effects of imprisonment on the post-prison lives of offenders and their families.

“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 Keep Recidivism Rates Down

For those who do end up in prison, innovative intervention programs are aimed at breaking the re-offending cycle. In the town of Krimpen aan den IJssel, near Rotterdam, the non-profit organization Gevangenenzorg Nederland (Prison Care Netherlands) runs a program that invites future employers into prison to meet inmates. In preparation for release, inmates participating in the organization’s Compagnie (Company) 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.

Of the 68 inmates who have joined the Compagnie project to date, 43 have successfully moved on and are in stable housing and employment. Hanna Geuze, project coordinator at the Compagnie, credits the humane treatment of inmates as a crucial factor to its success. Participants, called “companions,” must apply for a place on the ward. Once the program team is convinced of an inmate’s sincerity to change and take responsibility for their actions, they are coupled with a volunteer mentor who visits them every two weeks.

“The fact that someone comes in to simply be with you and ask how you are doing is transformative,” Geuze says. “It is a more gentle preparation for life outside.”

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.

Following a successful pilot, the next phase of the project will see open and closed wards mixed for the first time, meaning inmates who already qualify for working outside will live alongside those who are still fully inside. “That requires a lot of trust and responsibility on the part of the participants, but we think it will ultimately aid the transition,” Geuze says. She acknowledges that the relative freedom on the Compagnie ward is too much for some. “Even though our success rates are significantly higher than on conventional wards, we know that some people will drop out,” Geuze says. “To really make an impact and change behavior, we need to work with inmates for a minimum of six months, but ideally much longer.”

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. “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. In these cases, electronic detention combined with mandatory therapy might be much more effective in reducing the chances of reoffending.”