I have long been fascinated by the criminal justice system in the Netherlands and was really happy to see so many representatives from their three probation organisations at a recent conference I attended. It was obvious that those I spoke to had been tracking the progress of TR and were well informed. They told me they had learned a lot from our experience and would not wish to see a similar development that they described in apocalyptic terms.
The Dutch have much to talk about positively. Whilst we were bureaucratising our probation service and embarking on a huge cognitive behavioural experiment (without a corresponding investment in evaluation and research) whilst simultaneously pursuing a retributive and punitive criminal justice policy including a huge increase in the use of prison the Dutch were thinking about what society needs to do to tackle offending i.e. More investment in and commitment to reoffending and the use of custody in most cases as a last resort. They looked in disbelief as England and Wales ignored what had been proven to work on their doorstep and in fact told them their approach was better. Despite what was said to generations of probation trainees the approach taken in England and Wales was not an approach that meta analysis of old research had proven was likely to succeed in reducing reoffending or the number of people being sent to prison but rather a modified version of a system that had failed and been largely abandoned by every jurisdiction in which it had been tried except England and Wales until TR came along and we were transported back to the Dark Ages - be cautious about what you are told by government officials bearing gifts.
By contrast in the Netherlands they were focusing on rehabilitation and decarceration and the creation of a system that would ultimately lead to the closure of prisons and reductions in reoffending. I have always thought the Dutch model was far more likely to succeed.
Interestingly their concerns are not about deciding centrally controlled diktats from faceless NOMS/NPS bean counters or the tail spin trajectories of failing privatisation experiments but rather the large numbers of staff now being made redundant from prison closures because so many prisons are now empty. One Dutch official joked to me that the UK should cease building prisons as they could lease at least 30 ready built well designed prisons for a knock down rate in the Netherlands that could easily be fully staffed by highly trained bilingual Dutch prison staff. He pointed out that foreign multinationals already run prisons badly in the UK the difference would be to use a well run prison system that has a track record of helping to rehabilitate and reduce repeat offending. Of course it would also need a highly motivated and well resourced probation service to complete the job but unfortunately that no longer exists in England and Wales because the present government has decided that they want to keep building more prisons, understaffing them, and stuffing them full of people to bursting point having decimated the formerly well regarded probation service and deprofessionalising rehabilitation.
The government continue to see locking people up as an expensive but as far as they are concerned a good use of taxpayers money as it consistently wins votes as a popular move for dealing with those who offend (especially with those who naively think prison as the ultimate expression of retribution and punishment actually works) and the policy also conveniently lines the pockets of their corporate friends and supporters making the Conservative Party even more wealthy.
What is clear from the Dutch model is that the criminal justice system in England and Wales needs a great deal of transforming and more enlightened leadership that acts independently of party politics and political ideology and corporate interests and is instead based instead on what the research indicates is the approach most likely to succeed and therefore offers the best value to the whole of society. If for instance the probation service is to succeed again it needs to be reformed as one integrated service with well trained and motivated staff that is responsive to local needs. The rest of the criminal justice system needs to be taken in almost the opposite direction than it is going with better integration and a total rejection of privatisation with very strictly governed use of outsourcing in exceptional cases where expertise or technical services cannot be provided in-house.
As I have said before there is much that we can learn from jurisdictions that are a little bit closer to home who aim to rehabilitate and reintegrate their citizens and address the underlying causes of those who have offended rather than just locking them up, doing little to rehabilitate them, and chucking them out again without much support with few options. We need our criminal justice system to function for the good of society not simply for the political interests of whichever government happens to be in power.
David A Raho
Background to the above piece can be found here:-
In 2013, 19 prisons in the Netherlands closed because the country didn't have enough criminals to fill them. Now, five more are slated to close their doors by the end of the summer, according to internal documents obtained by The Telegraaf. While these closures will result in the loss of nearly 2,000 jobs, only 700 of which will transition into other unknown roles within Dutch law enforcement, the trend of closing prisons follows a steady drop in crime since 2004.
The problem of empty jail cells has even gotten to the point where, last September, the country imported 240 prisoners from Norway just to keep the facilities full. Still, according to The Telegraaf's report, Justice Minister Ard van der Steur announced to parliament that the cost of maintaining sparsely-filled prisons was cost-prohibitive for the small country.
A number of factors underlie the Netherlands' ability to keep its crime rate so low, namely, relaxed drug laws, a focus on rehabilitation over punishment, and an electronic ankle monitoring system that allows people to re-enter the workforce. A study published in 2008 found the ankle monitoring system reduced the recidivism rate by up to half compared to traditional incarceration. Instead of wasting away in a jail cell, eating up federal dollars, convicted criminals are given the opportunity to contribute to society.
These measures all add up to an unbelievably low incarceration rate: Although the Netherlands has a population of 17 million, only 11,600 people are locked up. That's a rate of 69 incarcerations per 100,000 people. The US, meanwhile, has a rate of 716 per 100,000 — the highest in the world. It's marked largely by its lack of attention to social services and rehabilitation programs once prisoners finish their sentences. Without a safety net to give them any other options, many fall back into their old habits.
Seeing as how the Netherlands is literally importing prisoners to keep jails full, larger countries like the US could learn a thing or two from the Dutch model.