Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Dutch Perspective

A Maximum Security Prison in the Netherlands
I went to Houston last week to discuss the restoration of food-assistance benefits to people with drug felony convictions on The Prison Show, a radio program that reaches nearly 80,000 of the State’s 150,000 incarcerated individuals. The station also invited Frans Douw, a warden of three prisons in the Netherlands, to be a guest on the program. Frans, the producer of the show, and I met for dinner prior to the show, where I found a rare opportunity to learn about corrections from an entirely different perspective. After the program, I invited Frans to come to Austin for a day to continue our conversation. He joined me at the State Capitol, where we discussed criminal justice policy with legislative staff. 
The following are some reflections from my conversation with Frans.
The Netherlands is a country of 16 million people, yet, as of late-2013, there were only 13,749 people incarcerated in the entire country.[i]  Frans indicated that his country is rapidly closing prisons, and that the actual prison population is now closer to 8,000. For perspective, New York has a population of 19 million with an incarcerated population of 53,000[ii]; and New York is the leading state in terms of reductions in its prison population. I asked Frans his thoughts on why there is such a stark difference between our two countries in terms of the number of people they incarcerate. His response should be instructive.

First, the Netherlands simply does not incarcerate people for possession of a controlled substance.  Conversely, Texas incarcerates more than 14,000 people in prison or state jail for possession[iii]—not trafficking or dealing—but merely for possession. The state pays more than $265 million per year to house these individuals. Imagine the improvements in quality and availability of drug treatment we could achieve with even a fraction of that amount. It is important to note that, despite the Netherland’s relaxed drug policies, the prevalence of drug abuse in that country is actually far lower than in the United States.[iv]

Second, prison is seen a last resort in the Netherlands. Frans reminded me that his country’s attitudes toward incarceration were informed by leaders who had themselves been incarcerated. Nearly 350,000 people from the Netherlands were abducted and forced into labor under Nazi rule during World War II.  Frans mentioned several times during our visit that many Dutch consider incarceration to be one of the most devastating things the government can do to another human being. 
As a result, the country utilizes many other approaches, such as community supervision, treatment, and electronic monitoring, to avoid placing someone in prison. 
Frans emphasized that criminal behavior often mirrors the very circumstances one finds within a society.  Where there are communities with high rates of abuse, violence, drug addiction, and alcoholism, criminal behavior is an inevitable consequence. Therefore, the Dutch are more diligent in supporting the resources that address those issues. During his stay in Houston, Frans was shocked by the number of homeless people walking the streets. He also noticed an astonishingly high number of armed police walking those streets. Frans questioned why Texas would spend such an inordinate amount of money on police when we could achieve even better and less costly public-safety outcomes by investing in mental health and substance abuse resources. 

These are not outlandish ideas. Seattle developed a similar approach to criminal justice. Instead of arresting people for crimes such as drug possession or prostitution, police in that city divert them to community organizations where they receive treatment. These are populations that tend to cycle in and out of jails and prisons, yet the same population in Seattle was 60% less likely to be re-arrested when diverted to community organizations compared to those who were arrested and taken to county jail.[v] 

In terms of corrections, our countries could not be more different. In the Netherlands, nearly all incarcerated individuals are seen as “temporary residents.” In fact, there are only 35 people in the entire country serving life without parole. Further, people tend to serve fewer years in prison in the Netherlands for the same crimes committed in the U.S. The result is an emphasis on preparing incarcerated individuals for inevitable release. While incarcerated, people work in jobs that instill meaningful skills. They engage in treatment. Frans is the warden of three separate units, yet he could tell me the cognitive and intellectual deficits of each individual in his custody so that he could ensure that the programming is individualized to their needs. 

They don’t throw people away in the Netherlands. Frans told me of one exceptionally violent individual in his care. The individual had committed crimes serious enough to warrant a lengthy sentence. After years of incarceration, the man had given up hope of a life outside prison. He had receded into himself, and spent most of his days in his cell. Frans tried a different approach.

Frans had collaborated with a community dog shelter to house and train dogs that had been abused by previous owners. Rather than euthanize the animals, prison residents were invited to train the dogs to the point that they were ready for adoption. The man serving the lengthy sentence watched the classes from the window of his cell. Surprising everyone, the man volunteered to become a trainer. He had such a gentle way with the dogs that he eventually become the instructor, teaching fellow residents to become dog trainers. In response to people who don’t believe that prisoners can be rehabilitated, Frans responds with a question,
“If it were your child, would you give up on rehabilitation?” 
With nearly 40 years of experience in corrections, the Netherlands gave Frans the latitude to try even more innovative approaches.  As warden of three prisons, he was able to turn one of them into a self-supporting unit.  The residents grow and cook their own food. They develop products such a landscaping tools for sale on the open market, which provides a small income to prepare incarcerated individuals for release while decreasing overall prison costs by 30 percent. Frans created reintegration centers within his prisons where residents can meet employers and prepare for inevitable release. 

In Texas’ prisons, incarcerated individuals can obtain a G.E.D., and may be able to obtain vocational skills if they can afford to pay for the classes themselves. Waiting lists for vocational training in high-demand trades such as welding can be years long. Very little is done to prepare people for release other than helping them to obtain a Social Security card and providing a list of community resources upon release.  There is no wonder that the overall re-arrest rate for people coming out of Texas prison is 46 percent, and above 60 percent for those released from state jails.[vi]

There are many differences between the U.S. and the Netherlands.  It is unrealistic to expect our criminal justice models to mirror one another.  However, Texas could create safer communities at a lower cost by simply shifting to a mindset that:
  • Does not criminalize addiction,
  • Makes incarceration a last resort,
  • Invests in resources to address social problems such as addiction and mental illness, and
  • Treats prisoners as “temporary residents” who will one day rejoin our communities. 
I plan to stay in touch with Frans in the months and years to come. In my job at Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, we are advocating for sentencing reforms to lower penalties for drug possession. Much of this work will involve shifting resources to make community supervision far more effective. It gives me hope to know that other countries have achieved even lower crime rates than the U.S. without such a heavy reliance on incarceration.  
More than that, I’m grateful to have a friend who treats those involved with the criminal justice system with genuine compassion.   

[i] Subramanian, Ram and Shames, Alison, Sentencing and Prison Practices in Germany and the Netherlands: Implications for the United States, (October, 2013), Vera Institute Center for Sentencing and Corrections, http://www.vera.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/european-american-prison-report-v3.pdf
[iii] Texas Department of Criminal Justice, 2014 Statistical Report, (February, 2015) http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/documents/Statistical_Report_FY2014.pdf
[v] Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), http://leadkingcounty.org/lead-evaluation/
[vi] Legislative Budget Board, Statewide Criminal and Juvenile Justice Recidivism and Revocation Rates, (February, 2015), http://www.lbb.state.tx.us/Documents/Publications/Policy_Report/1450_CJ_Statewide_Recidivism.pdf