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04 February, 2017

The Netherlands keeps closing prisons because it doesn't have enough prisoners

Crime is down, and sentences are, too.

Five prisons in the Netherlands were marked for closure in 2016. That follows eight closures of in 2009 and 19 in 2014. Because there are fewer and fewer inmates to put in the cells, the Netherlands' jails are just too costly to run. It's not a bad problem to have, unless you're one of the 1,900 prison workers losing their jobs.

The drop in supply of prisoners is because of two factors. One is that simply fewer crimes are being committed. Rates are falling around 0.9% per year. This, says the Dutch News, means 3,000 prison cells and 300 youth detention places will not longer be needed by 2021. Former justice minister Ard van der Steur said that serious crimes are less frequent, and that judges are imposing shorter sentences for those that are convicted.

This surplus has also had an unexpected effect. According to the Guardian, Norway has the opposite problem: too many criminals and not enough cells. So in 2015 it exported 1,000 inmates to Dutch jails. Sweden is also closing jails for the same reason as the Netherlands. It shut down four facilities in 2013, says Quartz, thanks to a 6% decline in inmates numbers over the preceding two years, partly down to a supreme court ruling in 2011 that reduced sentences for drug offenses. Meanwhile, the U.S. enjoys the largest prison population in the world, with 2.2 million incarcerated adults as of 2013.

Closing prisons is good news in many ways. It means less money wasted, and signals that there is less crime. It also leaves empty facilities that can be repurposed, like an old jail in Colorado which was turned into a transitional housing facility for the homeless, with a focus on homeless veterans.

Not that the Netherlands has it easy, politically, when it closes jails. There is still opposition in government. “If this cabinet was really working to catch crooks, we wouldn’t have this problem of empty cells,” said Socialist Party MP Nine Kooiman told the Telegraaf.

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