Dutch prisons have capacity for around 14,000 offenders, but are currently holding only 12,000. This decline is expected to continue.
This is in contrast to New Zealand, where we have two thirds as many prisons (8641 as of December 2014), but just over a quarter of the national population (the Netherlands has 16.9 million, to our 4.5). Rather than falling, our prison population is growing, and is predicted to continue growing slowly for the foreseeable future.
The absence of prisoners in the Netherlands is so profound that they have even begun renting space in their remaining jails out to nearby countries whose prisons are overcrowded.
There are a number of reasons why imprisonment rates in the Netherlands are falling, including: a focus on rehabilitation, more relaxed drug laws, and the increased use of electronic monitoring as an alternative to prison. The first two are fairly self-explanatory, but it’s the last one that’s interesting.
We use ankle bracelet electronic tagging in New Zealand a lot: there are 3232 offenders being electronically monitored at the moment, 1832 of whom are monitored using GPS, while the rest are simply held by communication between their bracelet and a transmitter in their home, which reports them if contact between the two is broken. The government is looking to expand this significantly.
Electronic monitoring has a lot of advantages over traditional imprisonment.
Firstly, it keeps offenders away from the influences of prison. It’s an old joke that prison is often like a “criminal university”, and many offenders will tell you that they learned the key tricks of trades like burglary or drug dealing while they were in prison. It’s well known that it can be easier to get drugs in prison than it is on the streets. Under electronic monitoring, this effect is limited to those bad influences keen enough to visit the offender at home.
Secondly, it’s much cheaper. In 2011, Corrections reports indicated that it cost $249 to keep a prisoner incarcerated for a single day, but only $58 to keep an offender on home detention. Per year, that’s $91,000 and $20,972 respectively. This means that if a prisoner can be kept on home detention there is a saving to the taxpayer of around 77%, which adds up quickly.
Thirdly, as we’ve covered before, home detention can be good for the community: it keeps families from being broken up, and allows offenders to keep their jobs. It also avoids the range of issues such as homelessness that can affect prisoners after their release. Sometimes we want offenders out of the community, or away from their families, but for the majority of offenders, remaining in the community is preferable.
Of course, the problem with electronic monitoring is that it isn’t a prison. If a prisoner was inclined to escape they’d have no trouble getting free of an ankle bracelet. Depending on the type of bracelet, this can be as easy as using scissors, or as hard as having access to a hacksaw or a few power tools. We learned last week that 18 people were on the loose, having removed their ankle bracelets and failed to report to probation or police.
Considering that we’re talking about leaving offenders alone with an ankle bracelet and nothing but time on their hands, this isn’t actually an especially high number: it’s only 0.5% of all of the offenders currently being monitored. And so long as the bracelets are properly monitored (and given the cost savings over prison, we can afford to make sure they are), breaching offenders should be back in more serious custody very quickly.
With that in mind, we’re happy see that the use of home detention as an alternative to prison is expanding. The one other lesson from the Dutch system that we need to remember, however, is that electronic monitoring isn’t any use without maintaining a focus on rehabilitation. Offenders in prison are targeted with a range of rehabilitation and education initiatives that aim to address the issues that caused their offending. As others have already pointed out, offenders on home detention may not get this same opportunities.