It has emerged from a study by three Leiden criminologists that suspects with an un-Dutch-like appearance are risk of being given more severe sentences by the Police Courts, particularly if their Dutch is not very fluent.
The researchers from the Institute for Criminal Law and Criminology examined the decision to impose a nonsuspended prison sentence or not, on 365 convicted persons. “In other words, what are the chances of the most severe punishment that may be imposed in the Netherlands? A nonsuspended prison sentence has a huge impact on a person’s life,” explains Hilde Wermink, a doctoral candidate at the Institute who worked with two lecturers, Jan de Keijser and Paulien Schuyt, on the research.
In the spring of 2010, they sat in on hearings of the police court at ten different district courts. 22 per cent of the suspects were given a nonsuspended sentence, 78 per cent were given another penalty, such as a fine or community service, a suspended prison sentence or a conviction without being given penalty. “The chances of receiving a nonsuspended prison sentence compared to another penalty is five times as high for a perpetrator with an un-Dutch-like appearance than for perpetrators who look Dutch”, continues Wermink, “which does not mean exactly the same as the chances of being sentenced to a nonsuspended prison sentence are five time as high. It’s all about the odds, the relations of probability.” If the perpetrators do not speak any Dutch, the chances are as much as twenty times as high. The last can partly be explained by the fact that it is impractical to impose community service on people who do not speak Dutch.
“We didn’t include a category ‘suspects who do not speak Dutch but have a Dutch appearance’ because there were too few instances of it. But it would be interesting in the follow-up research to find out whether negative stereotyping applies more often to speakers of a non-Western language than to, say, English-speaking suspects.”
The research paper was published in the Nederlands Juristenblad recently and Wermink hopes that more research into the application of sanctions will follow. “This paper alone is not enough to know what to do to get rid of the differences in the application of sanctions: that’s something that needs to be discussed, and not just by academics, but by people who work in the legal field.”
The study also revealed men were relatively more likely to receive a nonsuspended prison sentence than women. The “focal concerns theory” might explain this: according to the theory, in the courts’ estimation, women are less dangerous. MVW