Sanctions, exclusion and stigma: 5 low points of Dutch politics in 2013

wrong world (street art) (flickr poughk)

An evaluation of class injustice in government’s new policies and proposals of 2013: five low points in terms of deprivation, inequality, stigmatization, exclusion, discrimination and punitiveness.

(For non-Dutch readers: the Netherlands is currently governed by a coalition cabinet of the Labour Party (PvdA) and the conservative-liberal party People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD)).

1. Barriers to offender rehabilitation:

The Ministry of Safety and Justice wants to cut 340 million Euros by reforming the penitentiary institutions (DJI). One plan is to reform the penitentiary regime:  all prisoners take part in a basic programme and can earn a ‘plus programme’ (freedoms and rehabilitation activities) by good behaviour. A ‘promotion and degradation system’ makes prisoners responsible for the course of their sentence. Good behaviour (‘self-reliance’, ‘motivation’ ‘responsibility’) and bad behaviour determine whether prisoners gain or lose ‘privileges’.

Problematic because the plan conflicts with the rehabilitation principle as stated in the Penitentiary Law, which means rehabilitation should be central in every sentence. In addition, differentiation in regimes based on responsibility, self-reliance and motivation risks making rehabilitation programmes less accessible for the most underprivileged prisoners and thus may create an ‘underclass’ within the prison population.

A couple of months after the proposal, the state secretary responded to critique with a revised plan, but the ‘promotion and degradation system’ stays intact.

2. Reduced access to subsidized legal aid:

Further attempts to cut the budget of the Ministry of Safety and Justice lead to the plan to reduce access to subsidized legal aid, which would save 85 million Euros. According to state secretary Fred Teeven, the costs for legal aid have become untenable because people with low incomes take cases to court too often and too easily, ‘because it is cheap for them’. Teeven wants to hamper access to court and wants people to ‘first think things through’. Minister Ivo Opstelten replies to protests that ‘there is no class justice in the Netherlands’.

Problematic because it imposes barriers for the lower income groups to take cases to court. Problematic also because 60 per cent of all subsidized legal aid is for conflicts between citizens and government. People with low incomes are not filing lawsuits more often because it’s cheap but because they have more conflicts with the government, due to the complicated nature of laws and policies that regulate in particular the lives of people living in poverty (e.g. rules for social security, benefits for housing and health services).

Soon after the proposal and following protests, the Ministry announced to search for alternatives, for example by stimulating the government to look for alternatives to legal actions, which could also reduce costs.

3. Banishing ex-offenders and suspects from neighbourhoods:

The Minister of Housing proposed to set a ‘behaviour requirement’ for prospective renters who wish to move into appointed ‘problem neighbourhoods’. Based on this plan, municipalities can screen prospective renters and their family (including children at the age of 12 and up) for criminal offences, nuisance and disorderly behaviour. Excluding suspicious people would increase neighbourhood safety.

Problematic because of risk assessment based on vague terms as ‘disorder’ (see examples of ASBO’s in the UK) and because nobody should be punished twice, and certainly not for an offence that may have never occurred or may never occur in the future.

Because the Minister was in a hurry getting the proposal accepted, he decided to remove the behaviour requirement from the proposal and discuss it later. Unfortunately nothing was changed about the income requirement which excludes people living on social security from the rental housing  market in appointed problem neighbourhoods (implemented in 2006).

4. Mandatory unpaid work in return for social security (workfare):

Attempts to cut spending also by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment: 1.3 billion Euros. People would have to wait four weeks before they receive benefits. One of the plans to ‘activate’ people who receive social security is to compel them to do unpaid labour in return for receiving social security. If they refuse, they risk losing their right to benefits.

Problematic because it conflicts with the right to food, housing and clothes as stated in various human rights acts: people need income for their basic needs. No matter what they do, people should not and cannot be deprived of some form of income. Furthermore, the mandatory work may be experienced as ‘pointless and humiliating’, when it involves 32 hours per week of doing chores such as count files, water the plants, polish shoes, iron clothes, wash the dishes, take staples out of papers and pick branches in the woods, as they are told to do by the municipality of Amsterdam. According to Professor Vonk, expert in social security, such measures basically ‘punishes dependency on social security’ and ‘risks blurring the distinction between criminals doing a community service and security claimants … as if we are letting the people living on social security parade as scapegoats for a failing welfare state’.

5. Penalties for inappropriate appearance and behaviour of security claimants:

People risk losing three months of benefits when they can’t get a job due to inappropriate clothing, shabby appearance or maladaptive behaviour. This also applies to wearing a burqa or another piece of clothing that covers the face.

Problematic because… well, I think this pretty much speaks for itself. The conflict with human rights, discrimination, stigmatization, the punishment of unemployment and poverty – it’s all in there. This policy may lead to arbitrariness, but my concern is rather systematic legal inequality, when it is a certain category of people that is seen to behave irresponsibly. Such problems are inherent to the target group, says a case manager of Social Services. To me, this proposal exemplifies the increasing social gap in society and the degrading status of people who depend on state support. This is not to say that no security claimant is ever guilty of sabotaging their job opportunities. However, that some people are frauds should not justify the formal criminalization of inappropriate actions. Certainly not when unemployment rates are as high as they are now.

The proposals listed under 4 and 5 are in the early stages.

Photo by poughk on Flickr (street art in Berlin)

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