In a letter dated February 25th the Dutch Minister of Security and Justice informed the Dutch parliament that at the moment nearly 16,000 convictions of imprisonment have not yet been executed. Almost 3,000 of these convictions can be considered as regular workflow, which means that almost 13,000 convictions should have been executed by now. Fortunately most of these convictions are rather mild: 80 percent concern sentences of less than three months. So there is no reason for massive social unrest due to the fact that a large group of serious crooks is still among us. Nevertheless, there is clearly a severe problem when the government fails to execute judicial verdicts on a large scale.
Convicts at large
The main reason for this arrears in the execution of sentences is – not surprisingly – the large group of convicts that are still at large. The Minister of Security and Justice has put forward several methods to find them. First of all there is a specialized Team Execution Criminal Convictions (Team Executie Strafvonissen) that has the duty to find persons who have to serve sentences of imprisonment of 120 days and more, whereas the ordinary police force is responsible when it comes to the less severe convictions. In addition, the letter mentions measures such as arrest warrants, the expiration or refusal of passports, the withdrawal of social benefits etc.
Of course all intelligent initiatives to find convicts at large are more than welcome. When the judge has spoken, the government has the duty to make serious efforts to actually execute the conviction. Nevertheless, one has to observe that there are certain limitations. First of all these methods must be proportional in relation to the length and the seriousness of the conviction. We cannot accept that people who are sentenced to a short term of imprisonment are being referred to as outlaws. Of course it is justified to take appropriate measures such as arrest warrants,but sanctions such as the withdrawal of social benefits should be reserved for the more lengthy sentences.
The right to liberty
Another important limitation is the right to liberty ex article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In the Netherlands there is a strong tendency to apply pretrial detention on a large scale in order to prevent suspects who are awaiting trial from absconding. This tendency can also be found in the aforementioned letter in which the Minister announces new legislative measures to make the application of pretrial detention more easy. Although there is undoubtedly a significant correlation between the large amount of convicts at large and the fact they were free while awaiting for their trial, we have to refrain from the Pavlov effect of locking them all up pending the decision of the judge. As the European Court of Human Rights has ruled several times, pretrial detention must always be an exception to the right of freedom of article 5 of the European Convention, not the main rule. It may be harsh, but the government has to deal with the fact of life that there is always a possibility that some suspects will abscond pending their trial.