Netherlands runs out of criminals, has to shut prisons

The Netherlands (where most drugs are cannabis is legal) has so few criminals that it is now faced with the choice of shutting down its prisons and laying off the staff, or importing criminals from other countries like Belgium on a contract basis:
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.

Deputy justice minister Nebahat Albayrak announced on Tuesday that eight prisons will be closed, resulting in the loss of 1,200 jobs. Natural redundancy and other measures should prevent any forced lay-offs, the minister said.

Netherlands to close prisons for lack of criminals (via Futurismic)


  1. in other news today the Obama administration announces the PrisonIndustry Complex and the Waronsomedrugs Industry (with their prime sponsor, the DEA Cartel) have both launched lobbying attempts to have the Netherlands bombed immediately. President Obama has not yet commented.

    1. We’d have to find it to bomb it, which would lead to a high-level strategy session consisting of various iterations of “Isn’t that somewhere near Holland?”

  2. This is what I would call an example of something wonderful.

    People care about money–I mean tax payers do. I mean, they have always claimed to which is why, I suppose we elected a bunch of troglodites like Bush and Reagon so that we could pay lower taxes.

    I have this wicked theory. A wicked, wicked, wicked idea.

    Liberals are too wrapped up in gay rights issues, abortion, and a few other niche issues to much care about all of the millions of people rotting away in prison for things like snorting cocaine, smoking a joint, driving on a suspended license (this last one isn’t a joke). I guess sympathizing with criminals would make them seem too, well, liberal.

    The GOP is looking for a new issue now that fear and hate mongering no longer seem to working quite as well as they did a few years ago. Maybe they can take up the prison industrial complex as their next cause–not under any humanitarian banner, God forbid, but mainly because it’s too expensive for tax payers. Desperate times call for desperate measures. They would probably have my vote if they did just this one thing.

  3. While the story about prison cells is true, unfortunately most drugs are as illegal here as elsewhere. Unless you take a very broad definition of drugs, in which case most drugs are legal everywhere…

    It’s only marihuana that has an official semi-legal status, pretty much everything else (including mushrooms, since last year) is illegal.

  4. Funny thing about this; the dutch right wing parties, the ones for less goverment, view this reduction of goverment cost as a negative and are calling for more punishments and less rehabilitations to get those prisons full again.

  5. Yes, technically only marihuana is semi-illegal. But I love the fact that here in Netherlands, they prosecute hard-drugs and crimes rather than small-time stuff. They tell me that the general idea is to spend a limited budget on things that really matter (the big guns) rather than on small stuff. It’s more effective that way.

  6. Hmmm. Der Neiderlanders have vacancies in their prisons. Obama is looking for somewhere to put the Gitmo detainees… poverty stricken Cuba would love to get American tourist dollars back…
    Nah. Cheney will never buy it- nobody dies or gets exploited.
    Hey wait- he went away too, right?

    Dear Mr. Obama:

  7. Two words: Rita Verdonk.

    She spent the nineties learning about the Dutch prison system, and the 2000s making it more punitive, draconian, and xenophobic. A couple years ago, she lost a no-confidence vote and was booted. Saner heads now prevail.

  8. The Netherlands (where most drugs are legal)

    I hope that was an exaggeration for comedic effect. Because it’s factually untrue.

    Nah. Cheney will never buy it- nobody dies

    Tell that to Slobodan Milosevic, oh wait… well anyway, tell his next of kin.

  9. If I recall the distribution of small amounts of marijuana isn’t legal, but the police don’t enforce it. What is enforced is for distributions of larger amounts and the growing of marijuana.

  10. No no no no!
    Most drugs (apart from alcohol and tobacco) are NOT legal here. They won’t book, fine or imprison you for posession of up to 30 grams of ‘soft drugs’ (hashish, marijuana), but it’s still illegal. Read more about it here:

    More interesting is the sudden connection between our drug policy and the (planned) closing of prisons. I first noticed that a couple of days ago on digg.
    There is no such connection, and it hasn’t been mentioned in the local press. Although I must admit it’s an interesting line of thought…

  11. I think the point is being missed here.

    Technically, drugs are illegal in the Netherlands. Technically… The thing is that the Dutch have a long tradition of common sense in their legal system.

    Sure, legal academics can call it injustice if they like, but it seems that unlike any other place in the world, the Dutch realize that sometimes social order is best preserved by not enforcing the law universally. The message is pretty clear, if you are a member of organized crime, then you get busted under the drug laws, if not, then you are left alone. Same with prostitution.

    Only real problem is that legal advocates in this country and crazy moralists have been seeking to start getting these things enforced in practice, and with a police that seems to lack a significant function beyond filling state coffers with fines, they are getting support.

  12. Sometimes I think Holland is the only sensible coutry in this world.

    (Other times I realize they have a lot of weirdness too.)

  13. glad lots of people are on hand to clarify that largely drugs aren’t legal in Holland.

    Portugal however is a different case – where almost everything has been decriminalized (in small amounts anyway)… I’m keen to see how this policy changes the country in the future.

    lots of stuff to read about it.

  14. And it is a fairly homogenous society…

    Honestly, I’ve always felt that the worst part of Amsterdam was always the shitty stoner Americans…

  15. Well, it seems reasonable to suggest that if you don’t devote too many resources to dealing with those who commit “victimless crimes” (like hookers and weed) you can devote more time to addressing more serious issues.

    Still, the drop in crime has to involve something more systemic than not fretting over weed and whores.

  16. The actual explenation for the reduced need for prisons isn’t about the way crime is defined but the way punishment is considered.

    It’s the increased use of alternative punishments. Rather then forced detention along with other, harder criminals, convicted people are instead forced out of their enviroments. Forced work, forced psychatric care, forced education even.

    It’s the sort of thing that seems sane if one type of goverment does it but totally frightning if another does it (since it’s basically the same attitude 1984 has: those deemed criminal need to be fixed rather then punished).

  17. Yeah, drugs have little or nothing to do with it.

    A Nordic country like Sweden for instance, has an incarceration rate comparable to the Netherlands (but not to the USA of course, who’s #1 in the world at this).

    Yet Sweden is very hard-line on drugs. Not as harsh as the USA in terms of sentence-lengths, but when it comes to marijuana and such, it’s less socially accepted than in the US. And fewer use it or have used it.

  18. A propos the edit in the article: cannabis is not legal either. It’s still on the list of “soft” drugs, and there are certain shops that are allowed to sell, but not by law. Still they need a permit to sell the dope. And they can’t have more than 30g (I think) of stash. And buying wholesale is very much illegal and not allowed either.

    It’s very nontransparent and slippery slope and hypocrite at some points.

    Still, the main rule is clear: we have to lists, and both lists contain illegal drugs. Cannabis is on the list with the soft drugs.

    I guess we just marketed the hell out of this Amsterdam where everything is allowed image, mainly to tourists. Seems to work, too.

    You know, the main difference between our drug policy and the one in the USA is that once Dutch youngsters have left puberty, they’re pretty much done with weed. Sure, we have the eternal stoners and the occasional tokers but since it’s not as exciting because it’s FORBIDDEN ZOMG ZOMG STICK IT TO TEH MAN, it just loses its appeal. Same goes for alcohol. Legal age for beer: 16. Legal age for liquor: 18.

    Who says a state where there are loads of rules and high taxes can’t also be liberal as in libre-eral?

  19. Rita Verdonk is the same jerk that tried to strip Ayaan Hirsi Ali of her Dutch nationality, right?

    And, concerning the news item, well, this gives me hope and makes me dream.

    Another world is indeed possible.

  20. No, Rita Verdonk is the one who tried to strip Ayaan Hirsi Magan of her Dutch nationality, a policy that Hirsi Magan totally agreed with when it did not apply to herself (they were both in the same party, even).

    Verdonk thought that treating everybody the same instead of giving party members favours that no ordinary citizen could get would net her a reputation as a straight-shooter. For some reason that plan back-fired.

    I guess there’s a lesson in there somewhere for British MPs these days.

  21. #23 Remmelt: Good points, but I’m not convinced that our relaxed (attitude towards) laws are the reason that youngsters experiment and then quit after puberty. I’d love to see some real research/numbers on this (how many Dutchies experiment and then quit?). It’s a common myth, but if you look at the alcohol consumption (Holland has one of the highest rates of alcohol (ab)use among teenagers in Europe) it doesn’t really fly. (And yes Rita Verdonk is that very jerk, she’s even worse (more populist) than Geert Wilders).
    For you internationals: those two names and the increasing popularity of Christian hardliners (yes, our population is as divided and schizophrenic as the rest of the world) are two of the reasons everything relaxed about Holland might change in the coming years.

  22. @#24 Guidodavid:

    Sort of. “Iron” Rita, as Minister of Immigration and Integration, was bound by law to void Hirsi Ali’s passport because the latter had lied about where she was from and why she entered the Netherlands. She came from Somalia and wanted to get out of an arranged marriage, but said she was from Kenya and fled a war. Actually, up to the 1990s, it was common for refugee agencies to help immigrants “sex up” their stories to more easily get citizenship or residency, and the government didn’t mind too much. Hirsi Ali became a parliamentarian in the center-left PvdA, the Party for Labor, but she switched to the VVD when the political winds shifted in 2002. Afterwards, she spoke out against femal gential mutilation and honor killings, but went beyond that to bait and scold Muslims in general. She supported the Iraq War.

    Meanwhile, Rita, in her new cabinet post, was in the forefront in stiffening immigration laws. As a member of the VVD (Peoples Freedom and Democracy), a center-right party mostly out to privatizing government infrastructure and slash the social safety net as quickly as possible, Rita was right at home.

    Rita tried to fast-track the deportation of refugees who had exhausted their appeals for staying in the Netherlands, all 26,000 of them. Also, on her watch, there was a bad fire in the illegal immigrants detention center at Schiphol Airport. The guards ran away, leaving a number of refugees to burn. Rita, undeterred, declared she would follow the law regarding Hirsi Ali’s case. Then she reversed herself and let Hirsi Ali keep her citizenship.

    The government was shaky, with the Christian Democrats, whose leader, Jan-Peter Balkenende, was the Prime Minister, together with the VVD and a small, inoffensive center-left party called D66, just barely cleared the 76 seats needed for a mjority. Up to 2007, D66 went along with whatever their senior partners demanded in ending the good old tolerant days. But when it became obvious Rita put the fix in for Hirsi Ali, D66’s new chairwoman said screw this and withdrew, ending the second Balkenende government. The VVD threw Rita out of the party, and she started her own incredible shrinking party called Trots op Nederland (Proud of Netherlands).

    Hirsi Ali liked to shoot off her mouth, and a number of voters liked that. But, via Parliament, that support didn’t extend to 24-hour protection at public expense. So she went to the US and immediately hooked up with the American Enterprise Institute. I gather her lecture fees there didn’t cover her protection expenses either and the AEI didn’t pony up, so as far as I know she’s doing the rightwing rubber chicken circuit. She’s a darling of Muslim-baiting. Danish cartoonists like her.

    More on Rita & Ayaan here:

    This is my extremely jaundiced view of the last 7 years of Dutch politics.

  23. Well, I like Hirsi Ali, and I do not think she is acting against Muslims in general. However, her support to the war in Iraq was and is disgusting. I like Irshad Manji better, as a critic of radical, misogynist Islam.

  24. And THANK YOU very much for your insightful comment. People like you are one of the reasons why BoingBoing rocks.

  25. It is my understanding that The Netherlands have introduced an smoking ban in public places in line with other european countries and, as a result, patrons are only allowed to smoke in the coffee shops as long as there is no tobacco in the spliff

  26. Connecting fewer prisoners to the Netherlands’ drug
    laws depends on whether drug offenders received prison sentences in the first place. That would
    help arguments in favor of legalization but I
    don’t know whether it if factually true.

    If the prison infrastructure and staff are already
    in place, accepting prisoners from other countries
    is probably a better option, although ideally prisoners should be housed closer to their families.

  27. The point isn’t that all drugs are legal, or that the closures are linked to legal drugs – rather that only 12,000 people are in prison. And that is due to the lack of drug arrests. There would be tens of thousands in prison if U.S. laws were applicable.

  28. The laid off jail-keepers will resort to crime, and will end up demonstrating a need to reopen the prison(s)?

  29. #30 – I believe a coffee shop patron was recently prosecuted for smoking in a coffee shop. It wasn’t the weed that got him in trouble, but the tobacco in his joint.

    I love Amsterdam.

  30. And it is a fairly homogenous society…

    Honestly, I’ve always felt that the worst part of Amsterdam was always the shitty stoner Americans…

    Because homogeneity is, of course, the way God intended things! Diversity really sucks.

  31. Something’s not right with the math here. A capacity of 14,000 but only 12,000 incarcerated – that’s a surplus capacity of 2,000. That apparently represents 8 prisons (250 inmates per prison) and a 1:1.66 prison employee to inmate ratio.

    The federal penitentiary in the next town over holds over 1,100 inmates. I can’t find any figures on how many it employs.

    Do Dutch prisons really only hold 250 people?

  32. Canabis is not legal in The Netherlands–it is just not prosecuted. The term in “blind eye”.

  33. The SuperDuperPrison has obsoleted smaller prisons — especially in a less draconian political climate.

    Where you are, aren’t smaller and less efficient operations closed in favour of newer ones?

  34. @Madsci:

    A quick Google search for a few prisons seems to confirm it. I found a few numbers between 200 and 350.

  35. anybody else hear read freakonomics?

    I understand Cory’s hopeful connection

    However, a link was shown between the implementation of Roe v Wade in 1973 and a reduction in crime about 20 years later in the US

    Holland didn’t get their legalized abortion until ’81 and are now seeing a reduction in crime

  36. I think the eight smallest do, which would be the ones you would want to close down first to reduce costs.

  37. @29 Guidodavid:

    You are too kind. Regarding Hirsi Ali, I *did* say jaundiced.

    @35 Tiggy:

    More or less true. Though a few coffeeshops are promoting a cold vapor system. I should check this out because a really good friend works at the Sensi Seed Bank and would know. The really high THC (>10%) “skunk” you really have to cut with shag tobacco. In the south, a bar owner who was also the only employee won a court case to allow smoking in his bar. I know of a few bars that flout the law after sundown, behind closed curtains. It remains to be seen whether the government will institute a crackdown. Anti-smoking cops are now ranked below parking cops in public esteem.

    @37 MadSci:

    I work down the street from a pretty big complex called the Bijlmerbajes, with six towers. It holds about 800 prisoners, mostly doing 6 months or less. I gather it’s one of the bigger ones.

    It reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s description of American Megaversity (inspired by Boston U.).

    In Haarlem is a somewhat older, dome-like prison on the Spaarne river. It has more of a Benthamesque Panopticon look to it. I don’t know how many prisoners it holds.

  38. I suspect that having access to pot, since it is the lesser of many drugs, gives people the contact they need with drugs to understand what they really do. Doing it openly means that people can help you with it, help you to realize how it effects your life. Of course, pot effects everybody differently. The US has a more apatheia approach to pot, but the Netherlands is more metriopatheia.

    I am prone to believing that at a certain point in life, a person has to stand up for themselves and say “I want X, Y, and Z from life, and in order to get that, I know I need to do A, B, and C.” This person will simply put aside their drug use in order to accomplish their goals, and when their life clears up this can be incredibly empowering.

    It is one thing for teens to be doing drugs all the time. But for a person trying to make money, afford nice things, attract a mate, and build something meaningful from their lives: drug use is not always compatible. It is especially incompatible if it is not done in moderation.

  39. @# 37:

    I don’t know much about Dutch prisons, but assuming that you’re in America, I do know that the trend towards building bigger and bigger prisons that has come about in the USA has not been followed in much of the rest of the world.

    Here in the UK, the government was recently forced to drop plans to build new 2500 capacity Titan prisons, and instead will be building to 1500 capacity. This is about the size of the largest prison we have in the UK at the moment – HMP Wandsworth – which has 1461 prisoners on average:

    I think the UK is more like America than it is like much of the rest of Europe too. I think Oslo prison is the largest prison in Norway, with a capacity of about 400, so I could easily believe that the average Dutch prison takes about 250 inmates.

    If I remember correctly, there are fewer than 4000 inmates in the whole of Norway, compared to over 7 million in the USA. Make of that what you will.

  40. about post #37 by MADSCI
    The eight smallest prisons probably hold 250 people on average, which would be the first ones to close.

  41. This thread lead me to wonder whether the cost of jailing marijuana-related inmates might be greater than (or close to) the potential amount that might be brought in by taxing dope.

    First off, some disambiguation:

    While a shade under a million pot-related arrests occur, only 35k state and 11k federal inmates are held. That costs in the neighborhood of $1 billion per year.

    Meanwhile, estimates of the total value of pot sold in America, at its street value, come in at less than $50 billion per year. So, keeping people arrested is not a significant part of the economic side of this debate (compared to taxes).

    California could expect to raise in the neighborhood of $1 billion in yearly taxes from legalization, though this comes from a questionable source (maybe half that?) Over the next 18 months, CA’s budget deficit is $41 billion. So, the idea that legalization would solve the deficit problem is incorrect as well.

    It’s an interesting debate, though. The evangelicals taught us that the way to change public opinion is to get hold of a wedge issue and work at widening the gap between sides. Taxation may be that wedge.

  42. To stem to jubilation over the dutch (of whom I find myself to be amongst) a bit, there are votes to put asylum seekers in the empty cells, and there’s a good chance that it will be okay’d.

  43. Where is the evidence that it’s primarily because of drug crimes that American prisons are overflowing?

    America has a vast number of “blue laws” which criminalize a whole range of inoffensive behaviors which have nothing to do with drugs. For example, another story in boingboing today points out that a guy is now going to be sentenced to prison for possessing manga. Yes, Japanes manga. 8 people are on trial in Minnesota for planning to conduct non-violent political protests. Not actually protesting, just planning political protests — the police broke in their doors and arrested them before they could actually protest at the Republican National Convention.

    It seems that American prisons are jam packed because America has been criminalizing essentially every human behavior. If possession of manga or planning a peaceful political protest are now felonies, what isn’t?

    At this rate, pretty soon Americans will get sentenced to prison for respiration with intent to exhale, bipedal locomotion with felony standing, and aggravated digestion with a special enhancement prison sentence added on for salivation and mastication.

  44. Well it’s encouraging to know that a system exists that can almost eliminate criminals. The us-vs-them philosophy has really gotten the US economy into trouble. I would love to switch to something better.

  45. One upside of a full-on depression would be that the U.S. would have to legalize weed, or at least stop enforcing laws against it. One of the biggest factors that shut down alcohol prohibition was that going after all those gangsters was just too damn expensive for a depression-crippled country to afford.

  46. Think of the lost jobs! Here in the USA take care of our own and decriminalization of marijuana would cause a massive collapse of the economy.
    We had a similar issue back in the 60’s, seems some sorts wanted to ban the bomb or something like stopping the war and where would all those bomb factory workers be if we had done that?
    On the plus side, it looks like some forms of religion will be outlawed soon too. Give that Bokononist the hook!

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