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“He came down from his ivory tower”

“He came down from his ivory tower”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/ Illustratie Simone Golob

Hans Nelen inspired by Louk Hulsman

A revolutionary who wanted to reform criminal law. That was Louk Hulsman (Kerkrade, 1923). But even though he was recalcitrant and radical, according to professor of criminology Hans Nelen he should not be made out to be an absurd ‘abolitionist’.

“Is this a good photograph?” Criminologist Hans Nelen (1961) opens up a book, an anthology of the man who inspired him, Louk Hulsman, former professor of criminal law at the university in Rotterdam.
Hulsman is on the first page, dressed in a dark jacket, wrinkled forehead, big bags under his eyes. A plume of smoke coming from his mouth. “He was quite unique, charismatic, enthusiastic, flamboyant, but also scruffy.” The board of the Dutch Association for Criminology awarded him the oeuvre prize on 19 June 2009, because of his “exceptional contribution to the field such as the social debate on crime and punishment”. That was posthumously. Hulsman had died in January of that year. Nelen: “I actually only recently found out that he never did a PhD and that he hardly ever published. That was possible back then.”
Hans Nelen went to study law at VU University Amsterdam when he was seventeen. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and found that first year quite tough. As time went on, I was captivated by criminology, a subsidiary study of criminal law at the time. Herman Bianchi was our professor, a contrary thinker who wanted to abolish criminal law. Really, I couldn’t believe it. I admired him. Later on, I found his ideas to be very utopian and I realised that he had more or less brainwashed us. His path was the only right path.”
For a long time, Bianchi was a likely candidate for being the man who inspired Nelen, but in the end he chose Hulsman. “Because he came down from his ivory tower, entered into the debate. Bianchi was much more removed from reality; he was not taken seriously by everyone.”
“I didn’t meet Hulsman very often, but I regularly read his articles. He was just as contrary as Bianchi, wanted to get his hands on the repressive criminal law system. He felt that criminal law fuelled conflict, rather than solving it, causing exclusion and stigmatisation. According to him, the perpetrator and the victim should seek a way to repair the damage: appoint a mediator, sort things out together, allow the victim to tell his story. A form of restorative justice.”
Hulsman’s birthplace was Kerkrade. As a child he went to a strict Catholic boarding school; during the Second World War he was a prisoner in the concentration camp in Vught. In his book Peines perdues, written by a French journalist, he says that these were “determining factors” for “his later struggle against repressive systems”.
Nelen says that we owe the Netherlands’ liberal drugs policy more or less to Hulsman. In 1971, the Hulsman committee – which advised the government on the drugs issue – argued for the legalisation of cannabis. “Hulsman wanted to remove drugs from the domain of criminal law. According to him criminalisation did not lead to a reduction but to an increase of undesirable behaviour. Hulsman was in favour of turning a blind eye, in favour of coffee shops and against the prosecution of cannabis growers.”


This is a series in which scientists talk about a person that inspired them most



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