The Dutch government wants prisoners to contribute to the cost of their own imprisonment: 16 Euros per day for a maximum term of two years. Executing sentences, particularly prison sentences, is expensive and society should not bear the burden of people committing crimes, so the argument goes.
A number of counterarguments have been offered, some of which relate to income level. The Council for the Judiciary argues that judges should decide about whether and how much offenders should contribute, taking into account their income level. The Probation Service warns that many prisoners are already in debt and that debt is a criminogenic factor. In addition they point out that the measure will result in inequality.
Obviously, 16 Euros per day in prison hits low-income offenders harder than their more wealthy counterparts. The government acknowledges that many prisoners have financial problems (70 percent is in debt at the start of their prison sentence) and ensures that income is taken into account by allowing deferred payment. On the other hand, the time limit for collecting the payment can be extended, so the goal is to let all ex-prisoners pay.
A more fundamental issue is that not all offenders are equally likely to serve time in prison, and that the probability that they will go to prison is not only determined by the crime committed.
Recent research shows that offenders with a non-Dutch background are more likely to go to prison and that their prison sentences are more likely to be longer, compared to Dutch offenders who committed comparable crimes. If ethnic background plays a role in sentencing, offenders of a non-Dutch origin are thus facing a second disadvantage: they have to pay for their time in prison.
This disparity in sentencing is partly explained by differences in employment status and the financial situation of offenders. Judges are more likely to impose community service on people who work and send unemployed offenders to prison. In a previous blog post I argued that treating offenders differently based on their work status is problematic: sending unemployed offenders to prison means depriving them of the opportunity to get a job. Unemployed and non-Dutch offenders thus face a double disadvantage: they are sent to prison more often - where they are unable to work and earn a decent income - and they have to pay for it.
Current research does not show where and how ethnic disparities emerge: is it the judge, or should we look to the police (ethnic profiling?), probation officers or public prosecutors? If decisions are influenced by ethnic stereotyping, it is likely that this is not happening consciously.
Differences in sentencing based on work status are indeed the result of a conscious decision, but in this case there is no debate about whether disadvantaging unemployed offenders is acceptable.
As long as there is no further clarity or debate about class and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system, we should hold off from letting offenders pay for their own imprisonment. A vicious cycle of disparities should be avoided as much as possible.