Irreversible life-sentence or not?

A few weeks ago I wrote a long article about this subject. I made an extract of it and translated it in English. Because I think there it describes a way of thinking that could be interesting for people abroad and in our human rights projects in prisons and forensic psychiatric clinics!

Irreversable life sentence or not?

 Frans Douw is a consultant in Recovery and Return and worked for forty years in forensic psychiatry and the prison system and he was a warden for almost thirty years.

A few weeks ago there was a debate in the Dutch parliament about the continuation of the Dutch practice of the execution of a life sentence until death. All parties want to keep the life-sentence but some of them with a serious consideration of a pardon after about twenty, twenty-five years.

Secretary of State Dijkhoff and the social democrats want that too but only because the European Court and the Dutch Supreme Court do not support this punishment and they are worried the judges cannot and will not give the life sentence because of that. Others (socialist party and liberal-democrats) realize that an irreversible life-sentence is against Human Rights. It is probably even crueler than the death penalty and a form of torture.

I know a lot of victims and survivors and I have read files with descriptions and photo’s so horrible that my tears dropped on the paper. The ghastly and appaling happens: in all times, everywhere.

A lawyer I know, well informed about the life-sentence, told me that she lost her daughter. “Everybody has more and less a life-sentence in the sense that we all have to deal with the pain and injustice done to us and what we do to others. “Comparing the lifetime of perpetrators with the lifetime of victims is like comparing apples with pears!”

At this very moment we have thirty-seven people who serve a life sentence in the Netherlands. The amount of people with very long sentences who killed one or more people happen to be a lot bigger. I do not see a significant difference between the characteristics and the offences of these offenders and people with a life-sentence. Victims and survivors of long-term sentenced prisoners have to deal with the moment “their” perpetrator leaves prison. The fate of victims is, that they are damaged in a way not everybody is able to recover from.

 A brother of Pim Fortuyn, the Dutch politician who was killed by Volkert van der G. said on national television that the sentence of the killer had been “long enough” and that he could have peace with his release. “I will not get my brother back and I support the principals of the state of law.” That was a very courageous statement of him and he made a powerful contribution to the collective recovery after a horrible murder.

I know victims who say they cannot experience feelings of happiness anymore. But I also know people who are capable to enjoy their life again. While at the same time they suffer consequences of the crime. Nobody knows how it feels to stand in the shoes of another person and to know exactly what is the quality of life of somebody else.

Perpetrators are mostly also victims. And I do not mention that as an excuse but just as a fact: being a perpetrator and being a victim are close connected roles. A crime, very cruel indeed, does not define the person who committed it; he or she usually is a human being like you and me. Some of the people with a life sentence are “recovered” in the sense that they take responsibility for the harm they did to others and also gave their own, often traumatic, experiences in life a place. Everybody is responsible for his or her own acts but it is not a myth that a person who is beaten and abused as a child can develop an anger and un-balance that could easily make new victims. And that usually is someone who had noting to do with the harm, done to the perpetrator.

My friend T is on death row for 39 years. He is a non-violent, older and wise man. The granddaughter of his victim asked him to forgive himself, because it would help her and her family to leave this horrible event behind them T says that he ties to do that, but cannot, while tears flow over his cheeks.

Perpetrator, victim and survivor have close connections with people outside, usually a network of partners, children,, grand-children, colleagues and neighbors. Every small step they make towards recovery is important for those people. Some of the survivors and victims have a meeting with “their” perpetrator.

A perpetrator who can rehabilitate himself in prison by developing himself and creating values for others is working towards his recovery. Recovery is a thing you have to do yourself, but you cannot do it without others. That goes for everybody! You can measure recovery by looking at the capacity to be open for positive experiences again. For a certain part of them it will not be possible to reach that point. “Multiple partiality” means that you are not neutral, choosing for nobody, but that you think recovery can only take place when everybody involved gets recognition for who he/she is and why they are who they are. Which, by the way, is not an excuse to do harm to others!

A human being grows and learns like you and me. By being valuable for others and developing and using his talents. Sometimes treatment of pathology is needed. Some people become religious. Just getting older helps too. Telling somebody how he has to learn does not work. One can only follow his/her individual process and support that.

Will we continue executing the irreversible life sentence in the Netherlands? We are one of the two only countries in Europe who do that! And do we want to punish so much harder then our fathers and grandfathers? Because in the whole last century the average stay in prison for life sentenced prisoners was seventeen years!In a State of Law some questions have to be answered: does prolongation of the detention still serve an important goal? Are we willing to consider recovery/rehabilitation of the perpetrator? Are the circumstances, which made him commit the crime still there? Did the perpetrator become ”another person”?

And also:

Do you want to give judges and politicians the power to destroy another human being when there is no danger anymore like in a war or when there is no realistic chance that somebody will cause harm again?

The easy and populist way politicians talk about this subject make me shiver. Not only the ultra-right wing does that, but also our secretary of state, the Christian Democratics and the Liberal Party. In the US, but also in our country, politicians learned that being “tough on crime” is smart, politically seen. And it is risky to not be merciless. I consider that to be very opportunistic behavior and a threat for the state of law. Usually the public opinion turns itself against the perpetrator. I heard the speakers of the Christian Democrats and the Liberal Party and disgusted by the tasteless way they played on the lowest feelings of the public.

It will take a long time before anything will change. I doubt if the proposal of the secretary of state will end the “juridical bother” (called Human Rights). And the making the new law the parliament asked for will take at least ten years if it will ever happen: the strategy of our government is to delay and obstruct procedures to avoid having to do the right thing. The people with a life-sentence in the Netherlands will be the hardest and longest punished people in Europe and in our own history.


I am convinced that:

  • We need a prison-regime in which long term and lifetime sentenced incarcerated persons can start their rehabilitation and recovery from the beginning of the sentence.
  • We need to report about behavior and recovery of this group and re-evaluate the regime and the eventual treatment-plan regularly.
  • We need to be very transparent towards victims and survivors and inform them actively.
  • Make sure that you have a clear picture of the recovery and dangerousness of the incarcerated person after twenty/twenty-five years.
  • Let the independent judge decide. Politicians tend to do what their voters want. And that is not always according to the state of law and human rights, I had the chance to observe that last point intensely during the debate in the parliament.





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