Only in the Netherlands, lifetime imprisonment actually lasts a lifetime. Marc Groenhuijsen is a criminal law researcher in Tilburg and in 1999 he was one of the first to start the public discussion about life prison sentences in the Netherlands.
Marc Groenhuijsen’s former law student Klaas Dijkhoff, who currently is Assistant Secretary of Justice (VVD), announced last week that he will be voting for an amendment concerning the Netherlands harshest sentence. It was always the party’s point of view that ‘life in prison’ really means ‘life in prison’, but recently saw change when pressured by the European Court of Human Rights and the High Council. Apparently the way life in prison was carried out in the Netherlands, was in violation with Human Rights.
On paper the possibility of receiving pardon during life imprisonment is possible, but in practice it has never been granted by the minister. This has as consequence that those who are in prison for life, lead a futureless existence in the Netherlands, while the prospect for release is a human right. The majority of the House of Representatives are acknowledging the problem and are willing to amend the law: after 25 years they will review the sentence, after which an advice commission will look if the punished deserve resocialization and their freedom.
“Death penalty in disguise”
Before the turn of the century Marc Groenhuijsen, who isn’t only a criminal law researcher but also a judge, pled in an article for the revision to the harsh punishment. If it was up to him, it would have happened a long time ago: “Politicians don’t have a choice. The international law demands that there should always be a ‘prospect of release’ and a ‘possibility of review’. These don’t exist now.” This makes the way the Netherlands carries out the punishment inhumane. As president of the World Society of Victimology, Groenhuijsen spoke about the punishment with the current pope who quite astutely called the lifetime imprisonment: “a death penalty in disguise.”
The big question of course is if some people should be locked up forever. Groenhuijsen says people like this do exist. “About Breivik one could wonder if he should be released. But even he deserves to have his case reviewed. It should be added that this doesn’t mean that he will receive his freedom or deserves it.”
Not a decision taken lightly
As a judge Groenhuijsen only once had to give a life sentence, it was about ten years ago: “I can assure you that we didn’t take any risks. We thought about it for at least two days.” Giving out such a severe punishment is not something you do lightly, he says: “Nobody wins, the offender doesn’t, and the victim doesn’t either. The punishment becomes unbearable without the hope for release and is maybe even worse than the death penalty. You can’t do that to anybody.”
Groenhuijsen doesn’t want to speculate whether Dijkhoff is responsible for this change within the VVD: “but he’s a smart guy.” Furthermore, Dijkhoff won’t change the law because of the inhumanity. He thinks it’s necessary because he noticed that judges are less willing to give out lifetime prison sentences since the announcement from Strasburg in 2013.
In the Netherlands only 33 men have been sentenced for life, one of them is Mohammed Bouyeri, the man who murdered Theo van Gogh. Only once someone received a pardon. That was the serial killer Hans van Zon, who was released in 1986 on account of good behavior.