Sentencing and Punishment
in The Netherlands
PETER J. TAK
The Dutch criminal justice system has long been noted for its mildness, with reference usually made to Holland's low imprisonment rate compared with those of other Western countries. In the early 1970s, the rate was around 20 per 100,000, but since then it has increased, at first gradually, but steeply since 1990. By 2000, Holland was incarcerating 90 per 100,000 of its inhabitants.
Comparison of the punitiveness of different countries from prison statistics is not an easy task. Both the prison population and its changes are affected by changes in prevalence and seriousness of offenses, police efficiency, the strictness of the law and judicial behavior, and the variety of modes of sentences available (Kuhn 1997). Nonetheless, imprisonment rates have risen faster in Holland since the mid-1980s than in any other European country (see table 4.1).
Sentencing policies, practices, and laws in Holland have changed considerably in the past twenty-five years. Relative to the increased crime rate, the number of prison sentences imposed held stable or even decreased. The average length of prison sentences, however, increased substantially. In 1970, nearly 13,000 prison sentences were imposed for a total of 2,100 detention years. By 1995, the number of prison sentences had doubled, and the number of detention years had increased by five times.
The Netherlands continues to observe a policy of confining only one prisoner to a cell, so the increasing number of detention years (see table 4.2) has required an increasing number of prison cells and a larger prison population.
For many this increase is remarkable and disturbing. That reaction is understandable when one looks only at the figures. Behind the figures, however, is a reality that differs considerably. The low numbers in the 1970s were partly misleading, because they camouflage a considerable difference between prison capacity and prison capacity needs. Offenders who were not in pretrial detention before trial and who were sentenced to imprisonment often were not sent im-