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Myth: Dutch judges should punish more severely because that would make society safer

Myth: Dutch judges should punish more severely because that would make society safer

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/ Illustratie Simone Golob

Myth busters

The following criminal case dates from a few years ago. While a woman from Venray (Limburg) is sitting on a bench in the park, she is hit hard on the head twice with a stick. The assailant then steals her mobile phone. In the appeal court, the judge sentenced the accused to nine years imprisonment – instead of half of that, as the initial court had ruled. When the Dutch weblog Geen Stijl published an article on the case, reactions poured in. For most people nine years was not enough. “For such criminals there is no place in a normal society. They should be put in jail for at least ten years, and then for life in an institution,” one person wrote.

“Severe punishment is not always the same as smart punishment”, says Maastricht Law lecturer Jacques Claessen, founder of Stichting MENS (a criminal justice foundation) and an advocate of a more humane criminal law system. “We know that people who are treated badly – treatment that is geared towards damaging or harming – only makes them worse. Jail is a school for criminals, you lose your autonomy, and are branded in a way that is very hard to shake off even after you are released. Unfortunately, electronic house arrest and community service are generally viewed as being soft, as a result of which many people would prefer to see criminals being put behind bars.”
Claessen sees the benefit of restorative justice, a system that brings offenders and victims together. “This is about reconciliation, responsibilities and recovery. It is about something constructive for all parties. The victim can tell his story, ask questions, or reveal fears. The offender can apologise and show remorse. Maastricht research has shown that offenders who have received mediation are less likely to relapse than offenders for whom this has not taken place.”
The call for more severe punishments in society is nothing new, says Claessen. “But it goes up and down, like a wave.” Since the nineteen-eighties, with the emergence of the risk society, he reckons that we have become more aware of the risks in a society. And because we don’t like those, we try to eliminate them. “We put criminals in prison for as long as possible. Fear plays an important role. Fear and anger go hand in hand. People think in terms of revenge. Politicians try to sound tough. The result? More sanctions to put perpetrators behind bars longer or to keep a check on them.”
According to Claessen, it is important that when detention appears inevitable, preparations should be made towards the detainee’s return to society. “That is the only way for society to become a safer place in the long term.” That is why Claessen regrets the fact that the prison system has suffered continuous cuts to re-socialisation and rehabilitation activities. These include activities to stimulate the intrinsic motivation of prisoners, to make them think about themselves and life, guilt and responsibility, but also about a better relationship with the outside world.
Claessen does not want to think in terms of we versus them, victims against offenders. He has a positive view of mankind. “We are all connected. Besides, our whole life we’re in a state of becoming, we all change.”

This is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths

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