Bad guys needed: Netherlands closes prisons for lack of business

Oh, to be Dutch.

In the Netherlands, prostitution and marijuana are legal, Heineken is the local brew, and Amsterdam is a bike-able international city with a huge selection of fine cheeses.

And now comes the news from the Dutch justice ministry that the crime rate is so low that it will close eight prisons and cut 1,200 jobs.

There are too few prisoners for its prison cells -- 12,000 detainees in a prison system that has capacity for 14,000.

America should have such problems. In California, where I live, federal judges have ordered the California prison system to reduce overcrowding by as many as 55,000 inmates within three years so the state can provide a constitutional level of medical and mental health care to the remaining prisoners. California has the nation's largest prison system with 150,000 inmates, or more than 12 times that of the Netherlands.

Layoffs should be prevented in the closing of prisons in the Netherlands, and some reprieve may come from a deal with neighboring Belgium to unload some of its overpopulated prisons. About 500 Belgian prisoners could be transferred to the Tilburg prison by 2010.

The deal would give the Netherlands 30 million euros, and allow the closing of the prisons in Rotterdam and Veenhuizen to be postponed until 2012.

Theories abound on why crime is so low in the Netherlands. The murder rate, for example, has been declining since the 1990s, when there were an average of 250 murders per year. The rate hit a record low in 2007 with 147. One idea is that decriminalizing drugs leads to less violent crimes, and that a passive approach works best.

I visited Amsterdam about five years ago and unexpectedly arrived during a major soccer tournament that the Dutch team was doing well in. Dam Square was packed with drunken celebrants, and at least 1,000 people filled the square. I hung out there for about an hour and saw only two police officers.

Somehow, the crowd held it together and I didn't notice any fights or other problems that often happen when people roll kegs of beer into a crowd, as I saw that afternoon.

Oh, to be Dutch, I thought.

Aaron Crowe is an unemployed journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read about his job search at
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