Trading prisoners in the Low Countries
Dutch ease chock-a-block Belgium
THE border between Belgium and the Netherlands can be easy to miss: a road sign here, a flagpole there, a change in the colour of cars’ licence plates. When it comes to penal policies, though, the neighbours differ sharply. The Dutch prison population has been falling for some years and, with 14,000 cells for 12,000 prisoners, the government last year decided to close eight jails. But in Belgium the numbers locked up keep rising, causing serious overcrowding.
On February 5th this year, the Dutch and Belgian governments drew the logical conclusion, and agreed on a deal. Belgium took possession of the Dutch prison of Tilburg, a modern affair with tennis courts and a football pitch but a chronic shortage of residents.
For a rent of €30m a year, 500 Belgian prisoners now live behind Tilburg’s barbed wire. The governor is Belgian, most of the guards are Dutch. At first there was grumbling about language (some of the Belgian prisoners speak French, not Dutch) and ease of access (many supplies come from the nearest Belgian prison, 40km—25 miles—away). Now the arrangement causes little fuss.
Belgium and the Netherlands lock people up at the same rate: about one per 1,000 inhabitants. The Dutch boast that falling crime rates explain its empty cells. The reality is more complex. The Dutch built new jails as their prison population grew fast over the 20 years to 2005. They also promoted alternatives to custody, notably, in 2001, allowing judges to order community service for crimes that had previously earned six months in jug. By 2008, 40% of criminal trials were ending with community-service orders. And more drug-smugglers are caught nowadays in the Dutch Antilles, a Caribbean possession, before boarding flights for the Netherlands.
Belgian prisons have been crowded since the 1970s, but the country did not build many new cells. Two factors lie behind the continuing rise in prisoner numbers: high rates of pre-trial detention, which accounts for 35% of all those behind bars, and longer sentences. The courts have also become much warier of releases on parole. Officials point, above all, to the case of Marc Dutroux, who abducted six girls in 1995 and 1996, murdering four, after his early release from prison for child rape. His case revealed grave flaws in Belgian policing. Judges feel public pressure on them, to this day.
Full article: http://www.economist.com/node/16636011