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The Netherlands: Why are there so few prisoners ?

The Dutch justice system is cutting jail populations by offering specialist rehabilitation to people with mental illnesses.

When Stefan Koning, who has a history of psychosis, was found guilty of threatening a stranger with a knife, a long custodial sentence might have felt like the only answer.

In fact, after a short spell in jail, he is back at his home in Amsterdam.

“Bob is a character from Twin Peaks, a murderer who creeps into the skin of innocent people and makes them do terrible things like murder,” says Koning. “There’s a Bob in me who says ‘kill this person’, that sort of thing. If I take my medicines, Bob is quiet.”

Koning is a beneficiary of a growing tendency in the Netherlands to avoid jailing people unless it is necessary. One key aspect of this is a prodigious programme of care in the community for people with psychiatric problems.

“We work on two aims: number one, preventing another crime, and then on psychiatric suffering and the social problems that come with it,” says Hommo Folkerts, a forensic psychologist and outreach worker who helps Koning.

“We don’t treat people with just depression – it’s people with psychotic vulnerability, autism, severe learning difficulties, often in combination with severe personality disorders, addictions, financial problems, no good home or links with family, and often they are traumatised.

“Nobody would approve of the crimes or violence they have committed, but there is a very sad world behind them. If you want to mend all this, it will take a long time.”

In 1988, the UK criminologist David Downes contrasted a relatively humane Dutch prison system favourably against those in England and Wales. Today plummeting prison sentences have left the Netherlands with an unusual problem: it doesn’t have enough inmates to fill its prisons, even after renting out places to Norway and Belgium.

Since 2014, 23 prisons have been shut, turning into temporary asylum centres, housing and hotels. The country has Europe’s third-lowest incarceration rate, at 54.4 per 100,000 inhabitants. According to the justice ministry’s WODC Research and Documentation Centre, the number of prison sentences imposed fell from 42,000 in 2008 to 31,000 in 2018 – along with a two-thirds drop in jail terms for young offenders. Registered crimes plummeted by 40% in the same period, to 785,000 in 2018.

Miranda Boone, a professor of criminology at Leiden University, has studied the collapse in the prison population. “There is no doubt that the prison population has been reduced very significantly in the last 13 years – an amazing and, in the western world, unparalleled development,” she says.

Half of the people in Dutch prisons have received a one-month sentence, she says, and almost half entering detention in 2018 were actually awaiting trial. Experts attribute the decline to a variety of factors, including more sentencing before reaching or outside of the court system – such as fines – than other countries and the use of court-ordered mediation.

But there is also a special psychological rehabilitation programme known as TBS.

“TBS is a rather unique institution in the world,” Boone says. “In many countries there’s a choice: people can be held accountable for their deeds and are sentenced to prison, or not, and be put in a psychiatric institution. We have a psychiatric institution that is part of the criminal justice system for people who can be held not [accountable] or only partly accountable.”

Unlike high-security hospitals in the UK or the Netherlands, TBS has very specific conditions. People must have committed a crime with a minimum prison term of four years and have a high chance of recidivism: the programme works on specifically on their reintegration into society. If this is not deemed possible, or they refuse to cooperate, they can eventually move to a normal high-security hospital and be confined indefinitely.

There were 1,300 people detained with a TBS ruling in 2018: people stay in a treatment centre, sometimes after a jail term, and are treated for the psychological conditions that are thought to have played a role in their crime. Every two years, judges assess whether the treatment should be extended, and the average stay is two years.

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