As reported on this blog earlier, on 23 April 2012 the Dutch Prime Minister handed in the resignation of the Rutte-Verhagen cabinet after it faced a crisis when the Wilders Party withdrew its support. The continuity of the Dutch political system and the legislative process is however safeguarded by the outgoing cabinet and outgoing parliament. Not all their hands are tied. The Dutch parliament itself decides what legislation it wants to discuss during the remains of the term of the resigned cabinet. Legislative proposals that will not be discussed are declared controversial. On 5 June 2012, the Dutch parliament voted that a number of proposals are to be declared controversial. Within the criminal justice area, two proposals were lifted out of the parliamentary agenda: the bill proposing the ‘Enactment of mandatory minimum sentences in cases of recidivism for serious offences’ and the bill proposing a substantial raise in court fees. But this is not what I want to deal with. What actually got my attention, was the complete list of criminal justice proposals to be or not to be declared controversial and, particularly, the names some of them carried.
We know from experience that sometimes legislative proposals are framed in a, let’s say, more neutral sense than their impact would actually justify. The 2001 Re-evaluation of Maximum Penalties Bill, for example, actually meant the raising of the overall level of maximum sentences in the Netherlands. I’m not suggesting here that the level of maximum penalties should always remain at the same level. If, for example, there is a link between the level of maximum sentences and the average life expectancy (which has significantly risen over the years) and a link between the relative punitiveness, the level of sentences and the average life expectancy, one might question a level of maximum sentences determined in the 19th century. My point here is merely that it is important to name names – for all parties concerned.
So let’s talk about the bill proposing a ´Partial amendment of the Penal Code and some other laws in connection with the readjustment of criminal law to recent developments´.
The Context and the Law: Fighting the trafficking of human beings
The ´partial amendments´ in this bill concern among other things, the criminalization of the jeopardizing and impediment of airline traffic and the increase in the maximum penalties in cases of the professional employment of illegal aliens on the one hand and in cases of human trafficking on the other. That already questions the desirability of such combination bills. It is the latter proposal that I will discuss further.
Victims of human trafficking are often exploited in the sex industry, but cases also exist in other industries like agriculture or market gardening. This type of crime, perceived as a modern form of slavery, seriously violates human dignity and integrity, not to mention multiple human rights. Combating human trafficking is one of the challenges of the 21st century, globalized world. Fighting the trafficking of human beings has therefore been a focal point in criminal justice policy for some time now.
The Dutch Penal Code criminalizes human trafficking in Section 273f. In a series of legislative reforms since the enactment of this section in 2005, the maximum penalty for the most serious type of human trafficking has risen to eighteen years. The bill proposing a ´Partial amendment of the Penal Code and some other laws in connection with the readjustment of criminal law to recent developments´ will raise the maximum penalty for the most serious type of human trafficking from eighteen years to thirty years imprisonment or a life sentence and will, as a result, change section 10 (on the maximum fixed term of imprisonment) in the General Part of the Dutch Penal Code.
´Readjustments´ and ´recent developments´. More than style?
A possible life sentence as a ´partial amendment in connection with the readjustment of criminal law to recent developments´. Wow. Of course this is no Newspeak 2.0, nor is it Duckspeak. If this is an error in style, one might fix it. As the newspaper NRC Handelsblad states in its style guide: When someone is deaf, call him deaf. But the question is, does this type of naming reflect more. Does it reflect a certain attitude. Is it the times? What does it say about us, that our government is prepared to incorporate the possibility of imposing a life sentence in a bill not by name devoted to that subject, but instead to ´readjusting criminal law to recent developments´? We teach our students to be accurate and precise in choosing the names of chapters and (sub)paragraphs, in order make it possible for the reader to quickly get to core of the text. A too general designation of a name for a text often points to either a lack of knowledge or insight in the matter or to a hidden agenda. This bill is already a spinoff of another legislative process, and I know the Minister has made efforts to deal with this subject in a separate legislative process. But still. One might question the attention this proposed bill has received and it may be the naming that was one of the causes.
So here’s what I propose:
First: the Dutch parliament addresses the matter of a life sentence for human traffickers in a bill named ´Amendment of the Penal Code by increasing the maximum penalties in human trafficking crimes´. Deaf is deaf. Justice must be done to both the seriousness and the complexity of combating the trafficking of human beings.
Second: Incorporate the ‘deaf is deaf’ rule in the guidelines on the quality of legislation.
Third (to members of parliament): Hand in amendments to the names of bills or separate proposals. I’ll be interested to hear the views of our colleagues from constitutional law.