Dutch jail cells emptied by community service
The Netherlands is planning to reduce the number of jail cells in the country for the first time in 25 years.
By Perro de Jong*
At the moment, 4000 jail cells - the equivalent of about one in five - are empty. Over the last year, four prisons either closed their gates or reduced capacity. The reason? Fewer criminals - mainly because judges have been handing down community service sentences.
In the 1990s, the shortage of prison cells was so acute that people suspected of committing less serious crimes were allowed to go free. The cut-off point - i.e. for being released instead held on remand in jail - lay roughly at the level of one kilo of cocaine. In other words, drugs couriers arrested at Schiphol airport with about one kilo of cocaine were allowed to walk free, even though they faced a four-year prison sentence if convicted.
The shortage led to a rapid increase in the number of jail cells in the Netherlands. In 2006 there were 109.1 prison cells per 100,000 inhabitants. That number, which does not include detention centres housing asylum seekers, is almost four times as many as the number of jail cells in the mid-1980s. In 2004, the taboo that prevented housing two prisoners per cell was also broken. The percentage of the Dutch population in prison became one of the highest in the European Union.
Prison population drops
Internal documents from the National Agency of Correctional Institutions indicate that the opposite is now a problem: empty cells. Since 2005, the number of prisoners has dropped by at least 20 percent. Despite that, conservative VVD MP and former public prosecutor Fred Teeven says the closing of prison cells is "a bad
He says the reduction in the number of prisoners does not mean that the Netherlands has become any safer:
"There has been a reduction in opportunistic crime, such as theft, over the last two years but there has been an increase in violent crime such as wilful destruction of property and previous bodily harm over the same time period".
A Dutch prison - how many cells inside are empty?
Mr Teeven says the number of prisoners has fallen because a 2001 change in the law put community service on a par with a custodial sentence. The Dutch probation service defines community service as the "unpaid performance of a worthwhile task" or training that leads to behaviour modification.
Until 2001, prisoners had to request community service. Only those who had committed a minor crime were eligible to perform community service. The change in the law made it possible to perform community service for any crime which brought a sentence of 480 hours or less. Such a 480-hour sentence is regarded as the equivalent of eight months in jail. A prisoner is allowed to perform just half of the 480 hours as community service.
Mr Teeven is vehemently opposed to this development:
"Community service was meant to be used as punishment for simple crimes. It was never you meant to be used like this. You can say that criminals don't get any better for spending time in jail but they certainly don't get any better after performing community service".
Recently, Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin tightened the criteria used by the Public Prosecutor's Office when determining whether or not a prisoner is eligible for community service. The minister's move came after questions from the lower house of parliament. MPs were worried community service sentences had been imposed in a number of cases involving violence and sexual crimes.
Conserative MP Fred Teeven says the minister's measures do not go far enough because judges are still allowed to impose community service even if the PPO hasn't requested it. Mr Teeven says, "We will have to change the law to stop things".
The conservative politician says that he hopes that in the future, violent crimes will be punished by a combination of custodial and non-custodial sentences. But there will have to be enough prison cells to accommodate that hope. He says, "Yes, empty cells cost money. If we shut all the prisons now and crime rates soar, then we'll need those prison cells again".
The National Agency of Correctional Institutions emphasises that it is absolutely necessary to keep a buffer and that not all 4000 empty cells will be closed in the coming years.
* RNW translation (jc/tpf)
9 July 2008
[Copyright Radio Netherlands]