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prisonThe Netherlands is closing eight prisons this year due to its declining prisoner population. The trend is not new; prisons have been closing over the last decade.


For 150 years, the Het Arresthuis jail in the Netherlands housed criminals. Unused since 2007, it was transformed a few years ago into a luxury hotel with forty rooms and suites. Guests pay hundreds of dollars a night to experience a prison stay much unlike that of its original inmates.


The ratio of inmates in the Netherlands has dropped to 75 per 100,000 versus in the U.S. where it’s around 700 per 100,000. Indeed, the U.S. has among the highest incarceration numbers in the world. In comparison, Australia house 186 inmates per 100,000, Singapore 220 and Japan 49.


Netherlands policies are similar to those of other Western European countries.  The Netherlands system incorporates a number elements that seem to contribute to the low numbers:


  • Emphasis on rehabilitation and on maximizing prisoner contact with family, preservation of community ties.
  • Progressive drug laws.
  • Availability of electronic tagging instead of prison time where people return to work and continue as productive members of society.

In contrast, the U.S. has a tough on crime philosophy. The infamous Sheriff Joseph Arpaio in Arizona is a prime example of this. His belief is that prisoners should not be catered to.  The idea is that the tougher the punishment and more miserable the circumstances of their imprisonment, the less likely they would want to return.


The success of any criminal justice system is ultimately measured by how it serves society and not by its presumed deterrence value. Or in other words, it is or should be measured by how it benefits the good guys and not how effective it is in keeping the bad guys off the streets. Those two policy objectives are not necessarily interlinked as many would like to believe.


Also, it’s not entirely fair to compare between countries when there are other factors involved such as culture, education levels and economics that make their societies very different from one another. But one thing is for certain, given both the numbers of prisoners and the recidivism rates, the U.S. has yet to figure out how to do it right.


Recent waves of immigrants to Europe may change the scene there. Statistically, one can expect crime rates to climb with the large influx of people that so many European countries are trying to absorb. Add to this the possibility that certain terrorist groups are using the loose flow of people to its advantage to infiltrate terrorist operatives into Europe. Sadly, the ebb of crime and terrorism in the Netherlands may well be shifting.