Today’s Opinion: Do heavier sentences result in more safety?

POSTED: 03/25/11 12:12 PM

While St. Maarten struggles with prison cell capacity and prisons in the Netherlands stand empty, Dutch politicians are entangled in a debate about the usefulness of heavier sentences. The minority VVD/CDA-coalition’s supporter, the Freedom Party wants those heavier sentences.

VVD state secretary of security Fred Teeven and his Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten are working on a tougher approach to crime – but the question is whether this will lead to more safety and security in the Dutch community.

Opstelten suggested this week to impose a minimum penalty on criminals who commit within ten years another crime that carries a minimum penalty of twelve years. That punishment ought to be at least half of the maximum penalty. The Dutch parliament discussed yesterday the abolishment of community service for people who are convicted of serious crimes and sex crimes.

Scientists have questioned the effect of heavier sentences for quite some time already, the Dutch newspaper Trouw reported yesterday. Longer sentences do not always result in a safer society. The longer the sentence, the more difficult a return to the regular society becomes, they argue.

Scientists also point out that punishments in the Netherlands are already higher than in surrounding countries. As a yard stick, they use the number of inmates per 100,000 inhabitants. In the Netherlands that number is 130, in Germany and in Belgium less than one hundred.

That the Dutch government is pushing for tougher sentences is partly due to the fact that the cabinet relies for its survival on Freedom Party-support. Wilders does not believe in community service and he even wants to fire judges that are too soft with their sentences.

That last idea is of course ludicrous, as it would give politicians influence over the independent justice system. But Wilders may have a point where community service is concerned. In St. Maarten we also question the effectiveness of this system. There seems to be no control over the execution of sentences that contain obligations to do community service.

People who are sentenced to perform community service have to contact the rehabilitation bureau themselves, and if they don’t do this, nobody is the wiser until a suspect ends up in court again where the judge or a prosecutor may ask whether the community service of a previous conviction has indeed been completed. Yesterday alone there were two defendants in court who had simply not done their community service.

We know that former Chief Commissioner Derrick Holiday is currently performing his 180 hours of community service, but the fact that this started way too late – it should have been completed this month, but Holiday has just started – is another indication that the system is shaky and up for improvement.

The Freedom Party also wants a three-strike system, whereby criminals who commit a third violent crime are committed to prison for life without the right of parole. The Netherlands seems not ready for such a far-reaching measure, but the government is bent on appeasing citizens who have, like in St. Maarten, the feeling that criminals get off way too easy.

Scientists are weary of the government’s plans because they undermine the freedom and the independence of judges. The constitutional state is at risk when such measures become a reality, is also the feeling among the opposition in the Dutch parliament.

Never mind that there is already a trend towards heavier punishments in the Dutch justice system. Between 1980 and 2000 courts sentenced ten defendants to a life sentence. The past ten years the courts handed down thirty of such sentences.

The most worrying aspect of the current trend in the Netherlands is that it seems to drop its policy geared towards re-socializing people who have been convicted of a crime. Under the tougher regime, the Freedom Party seems to get the upper hand with its wish to lock up criminals for as long as possible and to throw the key away in extreme cases.

If this is already happening in the Netherlands with its over capacity of prison cells  It is not difficult to imagine the sentiment in St. Maarten, where there is not enough space to put away criminals and where people who are sentenced to do community service mostly ignore this court order.

Any political interference that infringes upon the independence of the justice system is in our view not only a bad, but also a dangerous idea. Unfortunately, that same system depends on the willingness and creativity of the political system to provide the tools for its proper functioning. If things get out of hand, not the justice system, but the politicians who failed to provide those tools will be responsible.


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