Comparing the Dutch criminal justice system with the American system may put a Dutch criminologist in a somewhat awkward position. From a Dutch point of view, there is much to criticize about the Dutch system. But from an American viewpoint one may wonder what all the fuss is about.
I found myself in between disparate viewpoints last week when I gave a lecture to a group of American students. The students were visiting the Netherlands for a summer school on urban social control. For their project they compare urban sites in Seattle and Amsterdam. I was asked to talk about Dutch punishment theory and practice and how the Dutch may differ from the Americans.
In my lecture I questioned the notion of ‘Dutch tolerance‘ through contrasting principles and practice. For example, in principle rehabilitation should be central in the execution of sentences, but in practice rehabilitative activities are privileges that can be earned and lost based on behaviour, and probation officers seem busy more with monitoring and risk assessment than reintegration. Another example: by law children under 12 are not criminally responsible, but this principle is blurred because the public prosecutor may issue a STOP measure to children age 10 and 11 for minor offences.
However, one may ask, is it really problematic that prisoners cannot claim a right to rehabilitation, given that most of them serve short sentences anyway (80 percent of released offenders were detained for less than six months)? How outraged should we be about life sentences without parole, as only a few dozen offenders serve life sentences in the Netherlands, compared to 160,000 (among which 49,000 without parole) in the US? Should we denounce multi-prisoner cells or the low wages of prisoners, considering that Dutch prisons are among the most comfortable in the world? Knowing about the American Three Strikes and You’re Out Laws, is it reasonable to be alarmed by a disproportionate mandatory sentence of only two years for repeat offenders (the ISD measure)? Is there a reason at all to get upset about the ‘punitive turn’ in the Dutch system, considering the Dutch and American imprisonment rates?
In comparing the Netherlands and the US, it is tempting to say that the Dutch system is better – more humane, fair, and perhaps even tolerant. However, besides the fact that policy is not necessarily the result of human(e) intentions, concluding that the Dutch system is preferable does not imply we should tone down our criticism.
Perhaps in judging criminal policies it is not helpful to compare countries. Perhaps we should rather compare practices to inherently valuable standards. Principles such as punishment not involving additional suffering. That children are not criminally responsible and juveniles not tried as adults. That people should be punished for what they have done and not for what they might do in the future, and that no single individual should be used as a means to greater goals such as security or deterrence allowing disproportionate sentences. That life sentences without parole are inhumane.
Policy makers have turned to principle-free politics as they are more concerned with effects in terms of security and electoral gains. Before we lose sight of our principles altogether, criminologists should continue to judge policies and practice based on legal and moral standards.