The Netherlands will close several of its prisons in coming years due to a steady decline in crime rates.
Why are prisons empty?
The Netherlands places a heavy emphasis on diversion, reintegration and rehabilitation programs, which have proven to be highly successful in deterring people away from the criminal justice system and from reoffending. Those in prison are encouraged to learn new skills to help them become gainful members of society when released, and a wide range of diversionary and support programs are available to get offenders ‘back on track’ with their lives.
The country also uses tracking devices, which means some offenders can serve ‘time’ while remaining part of the community.
While tracking devices aren’t suitable for all offenders, and can be controversial, they have proven to be successful in the Netherlands. The nation has also shifted towards treating drug addiction as a health issue rather than criminal law problem, which has been instrumental in helping users to get the help they need and keep them out of prison.
Local media has obtained government documents disclosing the plan to close five prisons imminently.
The documents also show that 1,900 prison employees will lose their jobs.
According to Ard van der Steur, the Dutch Minister of Security and Justice, the reason for the closures is two-fold: Firstly, judges are granting shorter sentences, meaning offenders spend less time behind bars. But secondly, there has been a significant decline in serious crime.
In recent years, the Netherlands’ crime rate has declined 0.9% on average every year, according to Dutch News.
The country has been facing this ‘good-to-have’ problem for many years, closing eight facilities because of the falling prison population in 2009, and shutting down another 19 in 2014.
Repurposing prison facilities
The country has been imaginative about finding uses for the defunct prisons too, creating residences for refugees, turning some into luxury hotels and even ‘importing’ offenders from other countries to keep facilities economically viable.
In 2015, Norway transferred more than 1,000 inmates to a prison in the Netherlands because it was seeing the opposite trend—there wasn’t enough room for all offenders.
Sweden’s falling crime rate
The Netherlands isn’t the only country to close prisons due to falling crime rates.
Sweden’s prison numbers fell by about 1% per year from 2004 to 2011. Then, between 2011 and 2012, they declined by 6%. In 2013, the country announced it would close four prisons and one other correctional facility due to the trend.
An explanation for the fall is the Swedish Supreme Court’s 2011 decision to give more lenient sentences for drug offences, which led to inmates being given alternative penalties or spending less time behind bars before returning to society.
Other countries are looking to these European countries as models for reform.
Here in Australia, statistics from the Australian Institute of Criminology show an overall decrease in most areas of crime; a notable exception being sexual assault.
The fact that most sexual assault victims are female supports other statistics which suggest that violence against women may be on the rise.
Despite the general downward trend, the number of inmates has dramatically increased in most Australian states and territories, especially NSW, due to an increasingly punitive approach towards crime including tougher bail laws, the introduction of mandatory sentencing regimes and higher maximum penalties.