Criminologists say that, beyond a drop in crime levels, the repurposing of prisons can be attributed to a building spree by the Netherlands in the 1990s that resulted in a glut of jails as crime decreased and the country’s population aged.
Professor Swaaningen also argued that in the digital age, an increasing number of 12- to 18-year-olds — the most high-risk age group for committing petty street crime — spent time hunched over their computers, taking them off the streets and potentially reducing levels of criminality.
He said that prisons had also emptied because of an emphasis on other surveillance methods such as electronic tagging.
After a surge in jail population in the ’90s, the Netherlands now imprisons roughly 61 of every 100,000 citizens, a rate similar to that in Scandinavia, according to data recently collected by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at Birkbeck, University of London. In the United States, that number is about 666, among the highest in the world.
In Europe, the countries with the most crowded prisons include Albania, Belgium, France, Greece, Hungary, Macedonia and Spain, according to a recent report from the Council of Europe.
Yet in the Netherlands, not everyone is rejoicing, including many of the roughly 2,600 prison guards who could lose their jobs in the next four years if more prisons close. Moreover, some law enforcement officials also say that the excess of vacant cells is a symptom of poor policing and the reporting of fewer crimes, rather than a reflection of Dutch crime-fighting prowess.
Frans Carbo, a senior official with the union FNV, said the closing of prisons was the result of penny-pinching — not effective policing. “If you close prisons now, you will only have to open them in a few years,” he said.
With the center-right government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte facing a tough re-election bid later this year, officials have been careful not to gloat about the overabundance of vacant cells.
“Not losing too many jobs from the start was our main concern,” said Jaap Oosterveer, a spokesman for the Ministry of Security and Justice, which oversees the federal prison system.
The surplus of empty jail cells, he added, is “good and bad news at the same time.”
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a spokesman for the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers. He is Jan Anholts, not Anholtz.
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