Over the past few decades one of the key puzzles facing criminologists is the rapid growth in incarceration. The term ‘punitive turn’ was employed to describe how a multitude of changes to economic, social and political conditions have shaped a broader shift towards a more expressive, populist-driven approach which has led to the popularisation of prison as the norm of punishment.
Whilst prison rates have risen considerably in the US and UK, even since declines in recorded crime, other countries across Europe, notably Germany, Portugal, Switzerland, Finland and the Netherlands, have shown considerable divergence in their use of incarceration, questioning ‘dystopic’ theories such as David Garland’s ‘culture of control’.
The key question then, is why and how such countries, which have broadly faced the same globalising pressures as other advanced Western countries, have managed to resist or shield themselves from the deterministic forces of punitivism? As a case exemplar, I will briefly consider and discuss penal trends in the Netherlands to try and decipher some of the reasons behind such changes.
As most other countries in Western Europe experienced rises in incarceration from the 1980s onwards, none so experienced change at the rate the Netherlands did, with rapid growths from 30 per 100,000 in 1985 to 123 per 100,000 in 2004. This mirrored developments in the UK, with growths between 90 to 141 per 100,000 in the same period. But since then the Netherlands has rapidly scaled back in its use of imprisonment, with a prison rate of 82 per 100,000 in 2012 and further reductions planned.
In fact, the Dutch are even closing down prisons and renting space to the Belgians, apparently due to a lack of criminals. But is it really as simple as this? Are the Dutch a lot more unfettered by erratic fears of crime and calls for populist punitive punishments? Where is this change occurring? From the top of the political chain or in the everyday ‘habitus’ of practitioners in criminal justice agencies?
Well, looking at the political scenery of the Netherlands and there doesn’t appear to be a direct match between a more sparing use of imprisonment and political direction of crime policy. Indeed, throughout the 2000s crime became a heavily contested political item, spurred on by several events and factors, which ultimately saw support grow for more extreme right-wing politics. For example, the murder of political leader Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and related insecurities and fears surrounding immigration after 9/11. Especially after Fortuyn’s murder, there was a deep sense of crisis that the traditional tolerant image of the Netherlands had been shattered, and was replaced by a more reactive and conflictual style of politics. After Fortuyn came the rise of an even bigger threat to the bastion of Dutch tolerance in the form of Geert Wilders, whose hate-filled speeches temporarily banned him from coming to the UK.
The importance of this development of a new strand of right-wing politics is that it has led to the reshaping of traditionally more centre parties, with parties such as the ‘liberal’ VVD and religious CDA having to rethink their strategy to claw back voters from the growing popularity of Geert Wilders’ PVV. This is especially prevalent with VVD Minister Opstelten projecting an image of the party as crime-fighters, relentlessly attempting to be tough against crime, with a clear example being with coffeeshops and cannabis cultivation where he keeps batting away shouts from local mayors to consider cultivation regulation in favour of a tough law and order approach.
So in terms of political climate, I don’t think there are too many discernable broad differences in the way in which problems of crime are constructed and projected ways of responding, at least in the style of rhetoric used.
But having said that, I would argue that notions of pragmatism very much live on in the zeitgeist of penal policy, and given the economic climate, the Dutch would be more favourable than perhaps other countries to reducing imprisonment due to the expensive nature of incarceration. But importantly, the use of imprisonment is also shaped by the practices of judges and sentencers. On average, sentences are getting longer for those incarcerated. However, the frequency of imprisonment over other sentencing options has meant that only 10% of those sentenced receive custodial sentences, whilst 56% receive fines, followed by 23% for community sentences and 10% for suspended sentences (see here, p.9). Compare this to the US, where 70% are given custodial sentences, and you see the stark difference in approaches. Where offenders are given a prison sentence in the Netherlands, 91% of those will be for 1 year or less.
So the low selection of incarceration is a large factor in sentencing practices, but also noteworthy is the introduction of a new community-based sentence, the Task Penalty, which was believed to have had an impact as an alternative to short custodial sentences, but research suggests that such a change was fairly minimal. Rather, it argued that the decline in serious offences put before the courts was most important (p.13). So patterns of crime and use of incarceration has more closely followed one another than in the UK or US where imprisonment continued to rise even after declines in crime.
The importance of these developments? David Downes wrote in the 1980s about the power of Dutch ‘shields’ which protected the criminal justice system from evolving in the same nature that the UK did. Practices such as diverting people away from prison through suspended sentences and more ‘resocialising’ and socially inclusive activities. When the Netherlands experienced a dramatic shift in both crime and politics, Downes and van Swaaningen suggested in 2007 that the Dutch were on a ‘road to dystopia’, having seemingly accepted the ‘culture of control’. But since then, and correlating with what I’ve previously suggested with developments in cannabis policy, is that such buffers or shields do still exist. Whilst the punitive political rhetoric and symbolism hasn’t wavered in the face of declining rates of crime, practices suggest an alternative picture of pragmatism which have deep-seated roots in Dutch penal history.