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Short prison sentences: More recidivism and expensive

Dutch political parties have presented their own 'solutions' to make society 'safer'. How do the party positions compare with scientific research on crime reduction?

From campus to cabinet

On 22 November, the Netherlands will vote for a new government. Important themes according to the polls are livelihood security, healthcare, immigration and asylum, the housing market, climate and sustainability. Which aspects should a new government keep in mind within these themes? Our researchers reflect on this in a series of articles.

Leiden research on effects of punishment

Legal scholars, criminologists, and economists from Leiden Law School are jointly conducting scientific research into the short- and long-term effects of prison sentences. Based on outcomes in actual criminal cases, they can draw conclusions about how useful certain types of punishment are for society. They have also calculated the price society pays – literally – for those punishments. Two experts, criminologist Hilde Wermink, and economist Jim Been, share the results of recent research here.

Drawbacks of short prison sentences

What options are there? In criminal proceedings, courts can impose various types of punishment, the main ones being: a fine, community service (taakstraf), and a prison sentence. They can also opt for a combination of these punishments. In the Netherlands, a prison sentence is chosen most often. Been: ‘And the vast majority of all periods of detention is for less than six months.’ ‘This applies to around 80% of all prison sentences imposed in the Netherlands’, Wermink adds.  

Wermink and Been looked at offences punishable by up to six months in prison, for example: threats, assault, theft with violence, and burglary. The main findings from their research are presented below:


  • Offenders with a prison sentence of up to six months are more likely to commit a new offence than offenders who received a different sentence, such as community service. 

    • One year after serving that prison sentence, a person is 17% more likely to reoffend. 

    • The risk of recidivism remains high: even after three and five years, people who have been imprisoned are more likely to reoffend (though the percentage does slightly decline). 

More offences per offender

  • Offenders who were sentenced to a prison term of up to six months not only reoffend more often, but they also commit more offences (e.g. not one, but five new burglaries). 

    • In concrete terms: five years after being released, they commit around 80% more criminal offences.

Imprisonment is more expensive than community service

  • All prison sentences of six months and shorter are together estimated to cost society over 400 million euros annually. This is about 45 euros per taxpayer per year. 
    • The small print: in 2012, the one-off cost of a prison sentence was calculated at 66.97 euros and for community service 34.75 euros. The daily cost of a prison sentence was then 259 euros per day per convict. The daily cost for community service was substantially lower at 72.56 euros per day. These are the direct costs. The cost of a prison sentence is even higher when indirect costs of, for example, reintegration and social security are taken into account.

Aim of punishment

The researchers believe it is important for politicians, when discussing crime and crime reduction, to focus clearly on what punishment aims to achieve. Wermink: 'Punishment can aim to achieve many things. Our research shows that if the aim is purely to prevent recidivism, short-term prison sentences make no sense. If that’s the goal, it would be wiser for courts to choose community service.' If, on the other hand, the aim is to punish someone purely for the sake of punishment, the researchers say it is important to be aware that this comes at a price. Been: 'Retribution costs society 400 million euros a year.'

Scientific research applied to party programmes

What is the stance of political parties in the Netherlands in relation to crime and punishment? Only the positions on this topic explicitly mentioned in their election manifestos are taken into account. 

Explicit preference for community service instead of prison sentence up to maximum six months:

  • CDA, D66, GroenLinks-PvdA, Partij voor de Dieren

Amend legislation so that more possibilities are provided to impose community service:

  • GroenLinks-PvdA: people who cannot pay their fine get ‘alternative community service’;
  • DENK want a specific type: the ‘contact community service’, where specific offenders ‘can be obliged to come into contact and become acquainted with people with a different background’.

Abolish community service:  

  • PVV, BBB (only for serious violent crime and sex crimes)

Less community service, more prison sentences:

  • Forum voor Democratie, JA21, SP

Violence against emergency services workers and care workers always punished with a prison sentence, community service not allowed (‘ban on community service’)

  • VVD, JA21, SP
    * in these cases, CDA and Volt want harsher and longer punishments, but do not state that this must be a prison sentence


Text: Helena Lysaght 
Image: Fien Leeflang

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