The Netherlands

This week, we’ll be heading back across the Atlantic to the Netherlands. The Dutch have based their criminal code off of the Napoleonic Code, a remnant of the Netherlands’ time as part of the French Empire. After the country’s independence in the 1700s, they kept the Napoleonic Code, though they did modify it to take a significantly more rehabilitative focus. The Dutch criminal justice system still has it’s roots in the Napoleonic Code, though it has obviously been updated to stay with the times.  So now let’s take a closer look at this system, and see how it works.

Like in the United States, there has been a fair amount of criticism of the Dutch police in the past few years over police brutality and racial profiling in police practices. Just this past summer, there was an incident in which a Black Caribbean man named Mitch Henriquez was pinned down and choked to death by five white police officers. There have been many claims that this incident, and others like it, was motivated by race. Also like in the United States, Dutch police carry guns while on-duty. An interesting piece of equipment they have is a teddy bear they keep in their vehicles to comfort children who have just gone through some sort of bad situation.

Dutch police arrested 60 protesters protesting the “Black Pete” Christmas tradition

In the 19th century, a group of concerned Dutch citizens formed an association to reform their penal and court systems to focus on more rehabilitative measures, and better represent Dutch ideals of justice. As part of this more rehabilitative focus, judges have begun to prefer handing down alternative sentences that don’t involve jail time, such as electronic tagging or community service, so that convicts can continue to be productive members of society. Sentences like these often come along with “default” custodial sentences, so that if an offender does not “fulfill his obligations under the alternative sentence, he will have to serve the custodial sentence.” Even when a prison system is given, it’s for a much shorter amount of time. In 2012, 91% of Dutch prison sentences were for one year or less, while in the U.S., the average sentence is three years. Also like in the United States, people arrested in the Netherlands have the right to speak to a lawyer before being questioned by police, and will be appointed a lawyer if they cannot afford one.

Ankle tags are used in the Netherlands as an alternative to jail time

Declining crime rates and a judicial preference for non-custodial sentences have led to a unique problem in the Netherlands: not enough prisoners. There are more prison workers than prisoners in the country, and they have recently begun taking in Norwegian and Belgian prisoners to avoid closing their existing prisons and laying workers off. Prisoners are allowed a substantial amount of freedom. They can dress in their own clothes and prepare their own meals; they are required to work and attend classes, and their privacy is respected. Dutch prisoners are not stripped of their rights as members of society or their connections to society, such as the right to vote. Some are even allowed to “report” to their sentences during the week, allowing them to visit home on weekends.

The inside of a Dutch prison cell

If the Netherlands has to literally import prisoners to avoid closing their prisons, they must be doing something right. Their crime rates have been steadily decreasing, and they’re projected to keep decreasing. The country’s recidivism rates are also low. What seemed cool to me was that the Netherlands initially started focusing more on rehabilitation because of a group of concerned citizens who wanted to see their justice system change. I think that a lot of people in the United States want to see our justice system be reformed, and the Netherlands shows us that we are able to make that change happen. It is within our power to change the criminal justice system; we just haven’t realized it yet.

Like in Norway, the rehabilitative focus of Dutch prisons seems to be the key. It’s like that saying that if you treat a man like an animal, he’ll act like an animal, but if you treat a man like a human, he will act like a human. By requiring their prisons to attend classes and work, the Netherlands is preparing its inmates for life outside the prison, and ensuring that they can take skills they learn in prison to general society. The Netherlands isn’t perfect, as we can clearly see from the accusations of police brutality and racist police practices, but there is still much that the United States can learn from its system.


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