Eight prisons were marked for closure in 2009. Nineteen more followed in 2014, and another eight closures were announced in 2016. While this is a problem for the country’s 1,900 prison workers losing their jobs… it’s not such a bad problem to have.

A corridor of the end of the world prison at Ushuaia, now a museum. Image credits: Luis Argerich

The main reason why this happens is simple: crime is going down. Rates are falling around 0.9% per year. This means that by 2021, 3,000 prison cells and 300 youth detention places will be an unneeded surplus. This is a healthy drop, and former justice minister Ard van der Steur said that serious crimes are significantly dropping as well. Aside from indicating less crime taking place across the country, this also saves a lot of money — as prisons are very expensive to maintain.

But this doesn’t really tell the entire story. Somewhere along the line, the Dutch understood that prisons are not particularly good at rehabilitating people. Just like in Norway, the Netherlands focuses on rehabilitating people instead of punishing them — and this works. The Norway recidivism rates are at 20%. Compare that to the 76.6% recidivism rate in the US, and you’ll start to see why this is a good thing. Judges in the Netherlands tend to give community service instead of jail for many crimes. The Duch are closing prisons so fast, they’re actually importing prisoners from Norway — which gains them extra money. They also don’t have a war on drugs, which helps contribute to their success.

Still, many believe punishments aren’t strong enough, as many people who commit light crimes (and even some who commit heavy crimes) never really get a jail sentence. Socialist Party MP Nine Kooiman criticized the government:

‘If this cabinet was really working to catch crooks, we wouldn’t have this problem of empty cells,’ she said.

Yet it’s hard to argue with those figures. So at this point, I guess it’s important (especially for the US, which has a record high incarceration rate) to ask one question: when people commit crimes, do we want to punish them, or do we want to rehabilitate them? Ideally, you’d say both — but this doesn’t seem possible.