One of my sons lives in Amsterdam, so when I come across a headline featuring that city, I generally take more than a cursory interest in the report that follows–especially when that report confirms my own impressions.
And especially when the implications confirm my policy conclusions.
A recent article by Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post hit both of those targets. Rubin began by recounting how, on a recent visit to Amsterdam, she’d walked back to her hotel late on a weeknight. It was a pleasant evening, and a relatively long walk, yet she never felt nervous or unsafe. She acknowledged that there are many New York neighborhoods in which she also feel safe, but unlike her Amsterdam experience, her feeling of security there was largely “because police are everywhere. Visible on the street, in cars, on horseback.”
The experience led her to consider the very different approaches to crime chosen by policymakers in the Netherlands and the U.S.–beginning with gun ownership.
In the Netherlands, there are roughly 2.6 guns for every 100 people; there are more than 120 guns per 100 people in the United States. In the Netherlands, it is very, very hard to get a gun; in the United States, it is ridiculously easy to get guns. In fact, according to a report by Mariel Alper and Lauren G. Beatty in the Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly “21% of state and 20% of federal prisoners said they possessed a gun during their offense. … About 29% of state and 36% of federal prisoners serving time for a violent offense possessed a gun during the offense.
In the Netherlands there are about 27 gun homicides a year. Not 27 per 100,000. Total. In the United States, the Pew Research Center reports, 48,830 people died from gun-related injuries in 2021. (The U.S. population is about 20 times that of the Netherlands; U.S. gun homicides are more than 1,777 times the number in the Netherlands.)
The differences go well beyond gun policy; Rubin reports that the Dutch don’t incarcerate people for drug addiction, for example, a decision that has allowed them to lock up far fewer people. She cites a report from the Guardian,
“Since 2014, 23 prisons have been shut, turning into temporary asylum centres, housing and hotels. … The number of prison sentences imposed fell from 42,000 in 2008 to 31,000 in 2018 — along with a two-thirds drop in jail terms for young offenders. Registered crimes plummeted by 40% in the same period, to 785,000 in 2018.”
By contrast, a report from the Prison Policy Initiative found that in the United States, “Drug offenses still account for the incarceration of over 350,000 people, and drug convictions remain a defining feature of the federal prison system…. As a result, “Drug arrests continue to give residents of over-policed communities criminal records, hurting their employment prospects and increasing the likelihood of longer sentences for any future offenses.” In short, the United States has 163 times the number of incarcerated people as the Netherlands, more than eight times as many per 100,000 people.
And–just as with our other policy choices (health care comes immediately to mind) our choices have been and continue to be expensive. The United States spends some $300 billion annually on policing and incarceration. And as Rubin points out, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Overpolicing and over-incarceration costs include lost earnings, adverse health effects, and damage to the families of the incarcerated. Those social costs are estimated to be three times the direct costs.
And none of those fiscal consequences include the ongoing, negative social effects of disproportionate policing of Black and White citizens…
The public safety choices we’ve made might be defensible, if the result was to make Americans safer than the Dutch. But–you knew this was coming, didn’t you?–that clearly isn’t the case. As Rubin says, “Our choices have not made us safer and have cost us dearly.”
In real terms, the U.S. criminal justice system and ubiquitous guns require an industry — ambulances, emergency room personnel, police, courts, judges, prisons, lawyers, private security and more — that the Dutch system does not. As I walked down the streets of Amsterdam, I imagined what we could have bought with the money we spend on the criminal justice system: universal college education, universal medical care, a strong social safety net.
Bottom line: American policy choices feed a “criminal justice industry”–without doing much to eliminate crime. As Rubin writes, different criminal justice policies “very likely could allow us to spend less money, lower incarceration rates, reduce the human and opportunity costs, and increase personal safety.” She says we have the system we do because we’ve “fetishized guns, criminalized addiction, neglected mental and emotional health, and resisted addressing social factors driving crime.”
We could make better choices–but that would require a clear-eyed look at the consequences of the choices we’ve made.