In the last decade the Dutch have reduced prison inmate populations by 50% and those sentences average to about 90 days in jail.  Many people expected this drastic reduction of inmates to lead to a notable increase in crime because:dutch-prison-refugees-temporary-housing

  1. Dangerous, proven criminals are being quickly released back onto the street
  2. There is virtually no deterrent effect to being jailed in the Netherlands

Contrary to this expectation the fact is that Dutch system has also reduced crime by nearly 40%.

As you can see in the image to the right, the Dutch now use their old prisons as temporary housing for some refugees.

How can that be?  In simple terms, it turns out that after thousands of years of trying different forms of incarceration and punishment that Europeans have figured out:

  1. Most criminals, including the most serious offenders, are not fundamentally ‘bad’.  The Dutch system (and other European prison models) proves that all but the most broken or chemically unstable CAN be rehabilitated.
  2. Criminals do not think they are going to get caught.  This is most easily shown in the complete failure of America’s so called “three strikes” rules in which citizens are automatically sentenced to life in prison for three, even minor, convictions.

Here are some similar facts and figures from the Finish that have had similar experiences with their criminal populations:

These stories of European prison reform have been a constant din in the ears of Americans, yet most US politicians and prison administrators (definitely not all!) have failed to act.  American politicians say that:

  • American criminals are somehow different for European criminals
  • US citizens want punishment and vengeance, not rehabilitation for their convicts
  • the heritage of the US penal system all but prevents Dutch style prison reform

However, during the Obama administration some changes were made to reduce the massive prison costs (both social and financial), which were nearly universally applauded.  They were only a start to the changes that the US system so obviously needs.

The Dutch system has its problems and should not be considered a panacea however, it does provide a proven model from which US prison reform could learn from.

Donald Trump’s administration has promoted a ‘get tough on crime’ agenda, which sounds great but has been shown, repeatedly, to be a failing policy.  It has gone so far as to have the US  Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, publicly state that they need ‘fill the open spaces’ in the US prison system.

Watch this fascinating 4 minute exploration of the US and Dutch systems:



If you think the Trump administration is totally dysfunctional think again. There are areas where it has been amazingly effective in implementing its agenda. Nowhere more so than the criminal justice system. Now you may recall that in recent years many American politicians on both sides of the aisle have tried to reform America’s criminal justice system. With good reason. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world with two point two million locked up. Tens upon tens of thousands of them for relatively long periods for minor non-violent drug offenses.
On the Left and Right most experts agree that the decades old war on crime has failed abysmally creating a dysfunctional system that recently cost the country 18 billion dollars in a single year. But not Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In fact sessions is introducing sentencing and drunk directives that hearken back to the worst days of the war on crime. He’s even outmaneuvered the president’s son in law Jared Kushner who has tried to push for criminal justice reform in the White House.
The New York Times reports as the US moves to lock people up. It might be worth looking at another rich country that has so few inmates it is actually closing prisons. The government in the Netherlands closed 19 of only six state prisons in the past several years according to The New York Times. Three thousand prison cells are expected to lie empty by 2021. The prison population decreased by half in a decade. Going from a peak of more than 20000 in 2006 to just over 10000 in 2016. So why is this happening. While embedded in the Dutch legal system is a deep pragmatism says Rene Swannack Botswanan a criminologist in Rotterdam.

In an interview no one wants to deal with the expense of the inconvenience of a ballooning prison population. For years Dutch courts have done whatever they could to avoid prison sentences.


The Institute for Justice noted in a 2013 report that just 10 percent of convicts was sent to prison in the Netherlands in 2004. The rest had some combination of community service probation and fines which the U.S. has often tack on to prison sentences rather than offered in lieu of the Dutch courts also do whatever they can to avoid long sentences in the US federal prisoners on average stay more than three years in the Netherlands.  Inmates stay an average of just over three months.

And unlike American prisons that seem designed to exact vengeance and destruction on their inmates. The Dutch system is built around bringing convicts back into society. That’s why just 33 people are currently serving life sentences in Dutch prisons. That’s zero point three percent of the country’s inmates compared to 7 percent of U.S. inmates serving life sentences.
None of this translated to an increase in crime. From 2007 to 2017 crime in the Netherlands is reduced by nearly 39 percent. There’s some evidence that this pragmatism was catching on forty years into America’s failed approach to crime. The country seemed to be learning from its mistakes during the Obama administration. Prosecutors were encouraged to pursue lenient sentencing for the first time in decades the federal prison population went down. But Sessions speedily reversed the Obama era guidelines. In a recent speech to police chiefs of Nashwa he complained about the slight reduction in the federal prison population and used impacted.

JEFF SESSIONS: I think crime in our country. We’ve got some space but some people are gonna say.



America has less than 5 percent of the world’s population and more than 20 percent of the world’s prisoners.

The goal should not be to fill prisons but in a responsible way to empty them.

For more reading on prison reform and the Dutch experience see:


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