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May 29, 2009

What is working so well when it comes to crime and punishment in the Netherlands?

If (when?) Senator Jim Webb is able to get a national crime and punishment commission created, I hope that figuring out what is working in the Netherlands becomes an immediate focus of of the commission's attention.  That's because, as this recent article forwarded to me by a helpful reader shows, the Netherlands is having to close prisons because of a lack of criminals:

The Dutch justice ministry has announced it will close eight prisons and cut 1,200 jobs in the prison system. A decline in crime has left many cells empty. During the 1990s the Netherlands faced a shortage of prison cells, but a decline in crime has since led to overcapacity in the prison system. The country now has capacity for 14,000 prisoners but only 12,000 detainees....

The overcapacity is a result of the declining crime rate, which the ministry's research department expects to continue for some time.

Some reprieve might come from a deal with Belgium, which is facing overpopulation in its prisons. The two countries are working out an agreement to house Belgian prisoners in Dutch prisons. Some five-hundred Belgian prisoners could be transferred to the Tilburg prison by 2010. The Netherlands would get 30 million euros in the deal, and it will allow the closing of the prisons in Rotterdam and Veenhuizen to be postponed until 2012.

In this post at Opposing Views, Bruce Mirken has this notable reaction to these developments:

For years prohibitionists, including our own Drug Enforcement Administration, have claimed — falsely — that the tolerant marijuana policies of the Netherlands have made that nation a nest of crime and drug abuse. They may have trouble wrapping their little brains around this: The Dutch government is getting ready to close eight prisons because they don’t have enough criminals to fill them. Officials attribute the shortage of prisoners to a declining crime rate.

Just for fun, let’s compare the Netherlands to California. With a population of 16.6 million, the Dutch prison population is about 12,000.  With its population of 36.7 million, California should have a bit more than double the Dutch prison population.  California’s actual prison population is 171,000.

So, whose drug policies are keeping the streets safer?

May 29, 2009 at 11:00 AM | Permalink


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Not working so well when it comes to real crime, not drug possession.


Prof. Berman, the capcha screening prevent replies from a Blackberry. Your blog requires, frequent, immediate rebuttals. Please, look into allowing street rebuttals by phone.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 29, 2009 1:03:42 PM

Prof's article is from May of 2009. Yours is from 2001.

If the capcha screening program prevents immediate replies from Supremacy Claus... [too easy].

Posted by: Texas Lawyer | May 29, 2009 1:30:41 PM

S.Clause, you get an "F" for effort. That paper was done in 2000 and 2000 is at the end of the 1990's, when the Netherlands did not have enough prison space. The question is what they did right in the last 10 years or so that resulted in enough decline in crime to close prisons. The comparison asks if California is doing something wrong while the Netherlands is doing some right.

No country will ever have a perfect crime rate though the U.S. thinks passing a law solves everything, so that the Netherlands has an imperfect crime rate is not surprising. Only the cult of vote seeking, rent seeking politicians that likes big government would ignore what the Netherlands did right.

Posted by: George | May 29, 2009 1:42:35 PM

Even going by the older data, which is available from Nationmaster.com (using 1998-2000) data, compare the per capita crime stats:

# 6 United States: 7.56923 per 1,000 people
# 18 Netherlands: 2.68964 per 1,000 people

# 24 United States: 0.042802 per 1,000 people
# 51 Netherlands: 0.0111538 per 1,000 people

Murders with Firearms:
# 8 United States: 0.0279271 per 1,000 people
[Netherlands not listed - somewhere below UK with 0.00102579 per 1,000]

# 9 United States: 0.301318 per 1,000 people
# 22 Netherlands: 0.100445 per 1,000 people

I certainly feel safer.

Posted by: Texas Lawyer | May 29, 2009 1:53:59 PM

According to the BJS report on prisons both the NY and NJ prison populations decreased 11% between 2000 and 2007 and NY has attempted to close one or more prisons to reduce costs. It would be worthwhile to review what NY and NJ did to reduce their prison populations.

Posted by: John Neff | May 29, 2009 2:00:55 PM

Research Links Lead Exposure, Criminal Activity

Data May Undermine Giuliani's Claims

Fairfax economist Rick Nevin has spent more than a decade researching and writing about the relationship between early childhood lead exposure and criminal behavior later in life.

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 8, 2007; Page A02

Rudy Giuliani never misses an opportunity to remind people about his track record in fighting crime as mayor of New York City from 1994 to 2001.

Posted by: George | May 29, 2009 2:18:51 PM

Oh great, it's not enough that we have a fascist running around on the loose, we have a fascist with a Blackberry. What on earth is this world coming too.

Posted by: Daniel | May 29, 2009 2:21:29 PM

Simplistic comparisons of two countries (or, for that matter, two states) that differ in many ways other than the variables being compared do not amount to much.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | May 29, 2009 3:04:44 PM


A reduction of $300 million per year for NY incarceration costs since 2000 amounts to something.

Posted by: John Neff | May 29, 2009 3:25:19 PM

Kent, would that be your position if the Netherlands crime rate reduction was due to a broken windows policy? (pdf)

However, the last paragraph is this:

"As a final methodological note: our estimates of the effect of policing strategies could be biased towards zero due to simultaneity in policing strategies. Additionally, we may overestimate the effect of policing strategies as a result of simultaneous changes in other policing strategies that we do not observe and as a result of simultaneity in survey responses on questions about police work. We find evidence suggesting that these types of simultaneity bias are likely to be small, but we cannot exclude the possibility that they affect our estimates. Therefore, further empirical research into the determinants police effectiveness is necessary to put our findings to the test."

Posted by: George | May 29, 2009 3:49:02 PM

Before I even look at any of the rebuttal statistics, were all of them from victimization surveys, the sole valid measure of crime? Police crime reporting statistics have no validity.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 29, 2009 4:21:39 PM


Prof. Berman made the comparison in order to RAISE the question of HOW the two countries differ, and which differences might account for the difference in crime rates. If we can identify which differences in policy/geography/society affect the difference in crime rate, we might be able to use that knowledge to lower the crime rate here.

Aren't you the least bit interested in this topic? You DO want there to be less crime in the United States, right?

Here's my guess: You don't want to explore this topic because you're afraid the result might undermine your entire worldview. Part of why the Netherlands has less crime might be because it has less draconian sentencing and puts much more resources into rehabilitation as opposed to punishment. If that's the case, it would pretty much reveal your personal mission (i.e., to punish criminals as much as possible) to be misguided.

Posted by: CN | May 29, 2009 7:37:14 PM

Kent Scheidegger wrote: "Simplistic comparisons of two countries (or, for that matter, two states) that differ in many ways other than the variables being compared do not amount to much."

To persons who are serious about reducing crime--and I don't believe you are serious--comparisons between two countries that differ in many ways other than crime rates do indeed amount to much. That is because, as an empiricist who understands effects to have causes (as opposed to a fetishist whose beliefs are rooted in faith or fantasy), facts matter to me. Thus, comparisons between two countries--even two countries that differ in many ways--can tell us very much about what we can do to reduce crime, regardless of the number of variables that may require tweaking. Given substantial (as opposed to marginal or negligible) differences in crime rates, one who is serious about crime--again, not you--would take such comparisons very seriously.

Posted by: DK | May 29, 2009 8:32:58 PM

The comparison should be to US white people rates. The reason? The lawyer has withdrawn police protection for black folks, and they have a 6 fold chance of being victimized. Why? He has immunized the black criminal to generate lawyer jobs, without increasing the crime victimization rate where the lawyer lives and where lawyers' children walk to school. Even if very close to Fallujah like conditions in a slum, the crime rate in lawyer residential neighborhoods are the lowest in the world. Shoplifting makes the local paper. Why? Let an armed robber get himself lost in one of those, three police cars arrive in 2 minutes. College educated, well paid police emerge blasting. The death penalty is at the scene. No excessive force litigation where the lawyer lives.

Please, redo these comparisons,

1) For victimization rates;

2) For white crime victimization rates;

3) For racist, white lawyer neighborhood crime victimization rates.

Assume the absolutely settled answer to the scientific question of whether blacks have any inherent tendency to law breaking is absolutely not. They have devaluation of the black victim and the loss of police protection.

Once these comparisons have been redone, I will bother reading this misleading lawyer propaganda garbage.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 29, 2009 10:51:27 PM

I have to agree with S C. Rates of convictions mean nothing. His last post explains this. The US citizens who influence the creation of the laws, are trying to preserve their priveleged position in society, and promote safety for themselves and their loved ones. They do not care about citizens who have not elbowed their way to the upper priveleged class. Their attitude is, "if there is the slightest suspicion that a lower classed person might in any way inconvenience their way of life, then, by all means, make a law that ensnares that person, imprison him, and throw away the book, and forget about justice." The Bible says "the meek shall inherit the earth" but I'm still waiting.

Posted by: DL | May 30, 2009 10:30:02 AM

Is reducing crime as important in America as keeping for-profit prisons chocked full? I don't think so.

We could take a big step to curtail crime by educating Americans on the 4,000-plus federal crimes lawmakers have imposed on society so citizens could know before agents show up at their doors what's illegal and what's not.

Beyond that, let's face it: There's something in the post-Reagan conservative psyche that makes draconian punishments compulsively thrilling.

Posted by: John K | May 30, 2009 12:34:09 PM

It would be nice to just discuss the issues here without people making snarky remarks attacking other commenters and making unwarranted inferences about their motives.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | May 30, 2009 9:44:51 PM

Those Belgians who are French speaking who end up in Dutch prisons are not going to like the food. Alka Selzer!

Posted by: mpb | May 31, 2009 9:25:55 PM

The incarceration rate in 1980 in Colorado was about 86 per 100,000; now it is about 500 per 100,000. The Dutch incarceration rate is bout 72 per 100,000. Numerous studies have shown that in the U.S., changes in sentencing laws, rather than changes in crime rates, have driven the vast majority of the U.S. increase in incarceration rates over the last three decades.

Coloradoans aren't vastly more evil than they were a generation ago, nor are they vastly more safe than they were a generation ago. The Netherlands isn't a violent pit either (as the statistics cited in another comment in this thread show). Americans make very heavy use of incarceration as a matter of policy, but comparisons to the U.S. in 1980 and to the Netherlands now, suggest forcefully that we aren't getting much bang for our buck from the higher imprisonment rates.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Jun 4, 2009 12:37:38 PM

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