“I quite like activist science”

“I quite like activist science”

On the societal impact of UM research

07-11-2023 · Interview

In today’s world, the societal impact of research findings seems more important than getting published in an academic journal like Nature or The Lancet. What impact has research conducted at UM had in recent years? This week: a citizens’ initiative of the Faculty of Law in partnership with the Restorative Justice Netherlands Foundation on electronic detention as an alternative to short prison sentences.

“I quite like activist science”, says Jacques Claessen, endowed professor of Restorative Justice and associate professor of Criminal Law. “You might think ‘Oh dear, activist’, but what I mean is science in service to society – using research to improve practice.” Claessen’s chair was endowed by Restorative Justice Netherlands, a foundation he works closely with. Just last month, they submitted what is known as a citizens’ initiative together. But first a few words about restorative justice. This is an approach to justice that focuses on addressing the harm caused by a crime in terms of not just pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage, but also specifically moral and social harm. Ideally, restoration is accomplished by letting the victim, the offender and the community engage in dialogue and collaboratively determine the way the crime is dealt with.

Ankle tag

What UM and the Restorative Justice Netherlands Foundation aim to achieve is that judges don’t have to impose short prison sentences (up to six months) for ‘less severe’ crimes, but can instead opt for electronic detention, commonly with an ankle tag, “as an independent sentencing option”, explains Claessen. This is already common practice in many other European countries, making the Netherlands the odd one out. Why is that? “There’s a bit of history there. Ten years ago, when Fred Teeven (VVD) was the undersecretary of Justice and Security, the media painted electronic detention as ‘lounging in front of the TV with a beer’. The proposal was quickly shot down.

But we’re not advocating for a bare-bones approach, but a more comprehensive version of electronic detention. People with ankle tags go to work or school, and if they don’t have a proper way to spend the day, arrangements are made for them. In certain cases, it’s possible to combine electronic detention with community service. So to those who say it’s not a form of punishment, I say: actually, your freedom is significantly restricted and you are monitored 24/7. You can’t just go to the shops, or to a football game with your friends, or to the pub. If you break the rules, you end up in prison anyway. But what is much more important to us is that electronic detention is a more effective way to prevent offenders from reoffending.”


“All crime is serious”, notes Claessen, but this concerns less severe offences, which make up 85 per cent of all crimes. “Should you always say, ‘We want retribution, let’s lock up the offender’ – a sentiment that tends to do well in politics and the media – or should you be more rational about it? You must understand that retribution comes at a price. Reoffending rates after prison sentences are very high. Incarcerated people lose their jobs, their homes or their partners. They may end up in debt and come into contact with hardened criminals.” These are all factors that may push people further into crime, Claessen points out. “And then there’s the literal cost – €324 per day per regular prison cell.” It’s not true that victims of these types of crimes just want retribution, says Claessen. “Most of all, they want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

A red light

So what types of crimes are we talking about exactly? What offences carry a maximum sentence of six months? “Think of property crimes such as certain kinds of theft, violent crimes like escalated bar fights or neighbour disputes, and specific road traffic offences such as causing an accident resulting in death or serious injury. And I don’t mean cocaine-fuelled drivers without licences speeding through town centres, but people who inadvertently run a red light and cause a fatal accident. That’s what we’re trying to tell politicians: Distinguish between the tip of the iceberg – the part you mean when you’re talking about being tough on crime – and the larger part that consists of less severe crimes.”


The citizens’ initiative is a means to get the issue of electronic detention on the agenda of the Dutch House of Representatives and the cabinet. This is the second time UM and the foundation have submitted such an initiative together. “The first one dates back to 2018, when we advocated for a legal framework for restorative justice practices, like mediation in criminal cases.” He knows all too well that the lobbying process is a long haul. “Our 2018 initiative has only just resulted in concrete action.”

Pick up the phone

And there’s another thing the researcher has accomplished: he is now in the contact list of the current demissionary Minister for Legal Protection, Franc Weerwind. “We met with him for our citizens’ initiative, and he realised that the gap between politics and the scientific world is too large. Research is conducted and commissioned by the WODC, the knowledge centre of the Ministry of Justice and Security, but it’s a lot easier for politicians to just be able to pick up the phone and call us when they have a question.”

Author: Wendy Degens

Photo: Ellen Oosterhof

Categories: news_top, Science
Tags: claessen, restorative justice, impact

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