Last night, I was watching GPS, Fareed Zakaria’s program on CNN about how over the last 10 years, the number of prisoners in the Netherlands had dropped from 20 thousand down to 10 thousand. I found the story so fascinating that I tried to do a quick search on Google after the show to try to understand WHY the crime rate in the Netherlands is dropping so fast that they need to close prisons down.
Fareed mentioned that the prison philosophy is not meant to be retributive but rehabilitative. Yes, the Dutch enforce the law strictly and arrest the law breakers. But there tends to be leniency in the sentencing of those found guilty of crimes. First of all instead of judgements of solely consisting of prison sentences, the courts mete out penalties that are a combination of fines, community service, training, and prison sentences. In addition, most prison sentences do not exceed three months. I even read that in some cases, hospital detention for treatment is a sentencing option. The intention is to attempt to re-integrate the criminal back into society.
This doesn’t mean that the Dutch are never tough. It seems that they draw the line on violent crime, which stands to reason.
Readers from the Philippines (where a brutal “Drug War” that has led to the deaths of thousands is currently being waged) may ask: How do the Dutch treat drug offenders? Dutch law defines drug trafficking, cultivation and production and dealing in and possession of drugs as criminal acts. Possession of more than 5 grams of cannabis will be confiscated but drug use as such does not constitute a crime. Further, the use of drugs is prohibited at schools and on public transport or in situations that involve public order, and especially when the health of young people may be at risk. Persistent offenders who have been found guilty of drug-related crime such as theft and burglary are subject to greater penalties but often also to treatment in care institutions.
Some people may view the Dutch approach to be naïve and “pollyannish”. Yet, you cannot argue with the success that they have achieved over the last decade. Also, has the more hawkish approach that countries like US has taken produced better results? Let me quote from Fareed Zakaria again in a GPS blog post that he made last March 30, 2012 entitled “Incarceration Nation”:
Something caught my eye the other day: Pat Robertson, the high priest of the religious right, had some startling things to say about drugs.
“I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol,” Mr. Robertson said in a recent interview. “I’ve never used marijuana and I don’t intend to, but it’s just one of those things that I think. This war on drugs just hasn’t succeeded.”
The reason Robertson is for legalizing marijuana is that it has created a prison problem in America that is well beyond what most Americans imagine.
“It’s completely out of control,” Mr. Robertson said. “Prisons are being overcrowded with juvenile offenders having to do with drugs. And the penalties – the maximums – some of them could get 10 years for possession of a joint of marijuana. It makes no sense at all.”
It is clear that the Dutch prison system has been effective preventing many first-time offenders from falling into a cycle of crime. It is interesting that a criminal record in the Netherlands is expunged after 5 years for a violation and after 20-30 years for a criminal act. That said, there are also other significant contributing factors such as strict gun control and a highly effective social welfare system.
I do not believe that these factors I have cited can fully explain the phenomenon we are seeing in the Netherlands today. Things are always more complex than they appear at first blush. Nevertheless, the Dutch certainly have a good thing going that is worth the attention from the rest of the world.
(p.s. A further area for thought: Do punitive HR policies produce the desired results in companies? Or should companies employ a more nuanced approach that also considers options for re-integration of offenders of company rules into the desired company culture?)