Something odd is happening in Holland.
Crime has been going down each year since 2004, and nobody can figure out exactly why.
In the Netherlands, the incarceration rate is just 69 per 100,000 people. This stands in stark contrast to the US, where the rate is 716 per 100,000 — the highest in the world. The US recidivism rate — that is, how often people who've been to prison end up going back — is 52%, according to 2013 data. The Netherlands' is closer to 40% and has been declining for over a decade.
The success of the Dutch model may lead one to the conclusion that the country's success results from measured steps toward prisoner rehabilitation. But there's little evidence suggesting prisons are rehabilitating criminals. Nor are any federal policies necessarily responsible for keeping people out of trouble.
Frank Weerman, a Dutch sociologist at the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement, says the decrease in heroin addiction rates through the 1990s might contribute to the low crime rates. He also credits the increased safety measures to secure stores and homes.
However, Weerman still hedges.
"I am not sure what exactly is the contribution of all this to the decline in prisoners in the Netherlands, but it probably has played a role," he says.
In reaching out to half a dozen Dutch experts, in fact, each of them forwarded me to someone else who they were certain could answer the question. The response was mostly head-scratching.
"Nobody really knows why crime rates are high or low, go up or down, but we do know that this has nothing to do with prisons!" says Arjen Boin, professor of institutions and governance at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
To be sure, crime rates in the Netherlands are going down. That's why the prisons are closing in the first place: It's become too expensive to keep them in operation when they're only running at partial capacity.
A 2010 study of one major Dutch prison found that offering basic rights, like healthcare and personal space, kept the prison running safely and smoothly. Guards also had electronic devices that monitored prisoner activity via ankle bracelets.
Better prisoner monitoring after the fact may help explain some of the success in reducing crime.
A 2008 study, for example, found that cutting short Dutch prisoners' sentences to let them reenter the workforce with ankle monitors reduced the recidivism rate by up to half compared to traditional incarceration. Instead of wasting away in a jail cell, eating up federal dollars, criminals were given the opportunity to contribute to society.
So it's possible that the Dutch prison system might succeed, in other words, precisely because people don't spend much time locked up. It may also be the programs offered to prisoners after they've been let go that give them the real leg up on the American system. In the US, many people who fall into the cycle of crime end up absorbing that behavior as part of their identity, so they eventually lose the drive to escape the cycle altogether.
"The problem in the US is the length of sentences and the ease with which people (especially minorities) are put behind bars," Boin says. "If the US wants to learn from the Netherlands (or any other European country), it should study the way we punish criminals. No jury trials, no plea bargaining, no politically charged [district attorneys]. There you will find the solution."