Paying for prison time

POSTED: 04/10/15 12:35 PM

Nothing is free and cash-strapped governments are becoming increasingly aware of this. They find all kinds of ways to squeeze money out of their citizens. A recent example from the Netherlands is the plan to let prisoners pay for their stay. The Rutte-cabinet wants to collect €16 ($17.25) per day from convicts, those who have been put at the disposal of the government, and parents of under-age convicts. The maximum per inmate is €11,680 ($12,614) – an amount that would apply to someone who is serving a 730-day sentence – two years behind bars.

One may well wonder whether this measure will not backfire. Nicole Besselink examined the issue in an article that appeared in Trouw yesterday. Does it make sense to saddle inmates with such a huge debt? Social benefits stop as soon as someone becomes a guest of the state, wages for working in prison are low and putting money aside is a huge challenge.

There is of course a distinct possibility that debt-ridden inmates after their release will return to a life of crime in an attempt to meet their obligations.

The Dutch parliament discussed the issue this week. The plan to let perpetrators pay for the damages they have causes is part of the governing accord the VVD and the PvdA signed two-and-a-half years ago.

The coalition wants more than a contribution from inmates to the costs of their incarceration; the parties also want to collect money for the costs of tracking down, prosecuting and taking criminals to trial. Of this money, part has to go to victim-care.

The question is of course how much money the state can squeeze out of inmates without causing them a huge financial headache that they are unable to handle. The governing accord mentions an amount of €12.50 ($13,50) per day – to be collected over a maximum period of six months. Former State Secretary Fred Teeven (Safety and Justice) increased this amount to €16 and the maximum term to two years.

Many in the legal community fear that these debts will cause inmates to return to a life of crime.

In spite of this, the PvdA-faction supports the plan to the astonishment of other factions. Earlier the party saw the financial contribution as an additional punishment. In 2008, the party rejected the idea, now “the principle that the perpetrator has to contribute is leading.”

Other MPs, like Gerard Schouw (D66) wonder how the state will collect money from people who are financially destitute. With the Socialist Party and the CDA he fears that the administrative organization of the measure will cost more than it brings in.

Minister Ard van der Steur and State Secretary Klaas Dijkhoff did not get around to answering to these concerns but their predecessors had their defense ready: most inmates serve only a short time and they have therefore to pay only a small amount. If they are incapable of paying the full amount it is possible to pay in terms. Remission is also possible.

The cabinet reasons that not all inmates are broke upon their release. At the beginning of their detention, 75 percent of inmates have an income. Six months after their release 87 percent has an income.

Socialist Party MP Nine Kooiman has her doubts about these numbers. She suspects not without reason that this income consists of social benefits. In that case, the government is collecting money it has first paid itself.

The SP will not support the measure, but because the rightwing PVV does supports it, the cabinet had enough political clout to put the measure into effect.

It is something to think about for the government in St. Maarten, but there is no hurry: the best way to deal with this issue is to wait and see how it will work out in the Netherlands before even considering a copycat.

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