Prison overcrowding in Belgium delays application of ‘shorter sentences’

Prison overcrowding in Belgium delays application of ‘shorter sentences’
Bruges prison. Credit: Belga

Belgium’s plan to implement reduced sentences for a number of lesser crimes is being postponed due to continued overcrowding in existing prisons. The plan has now been postponed until next September.

The delay to these reforms applies to sentences of two to three years' imprisonment, while the Federal Government has also given itself an extra year delay, until September 2023, when it comes to sentences of less than two years, reports Le Soir.

The plan for shorter sentences is part of broader prison reform in Belgium intended to address overcrowding, which also includes the construction of new penitentiary institutions and increased psychiatric help.

Shorter sentences, postponed jail time

The first efforts to reduce sentences were technically made into law in 2006, and then amended in 2019, but implementation has been continuously stalled. The latest postponement will be debated on Tuesday.

“The cause of this new decision to postpone, which is, in fact, the third to date… is indeed prison overcrowding,” said Minister of Justice Vincent Van Quickenborne.

“How can we get more people into prison, when prisons are already overflowing and prisoners are too often locked up in conditions that trample on their rights?”

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In explaining the reasons for his decision to Parliament, the Minister of Justice also confirmed his intention not to work for the effective enforcement of sentences of less than six months.

“The execution of sentences of less than six months is still regulated until further notice by a ministerial order. In practice, they have not been executed since 1970,” he argued.

“So we are not going to enforce them now as they will probably be abolished in a few months when the new Penal Code is introduced.”

More spaces in prisons urgently needed

Even with the postponement, Van Quickenborne's timetable for creating enough places to cope with the new influx will remain tight.

The minister is counting on the delivery of the new prisons in Haren and Dendermonde by autumn 2022, which will have 1,190 and 444 places respectively.

Despite the closure of the three existing Brussels prisons (the current women's prison in Berkendael will be converted into a detention centre with 60 places) and the old prison in Dendermonde, “this represents a net increase of 382 new places,” he said.

But what the Minister is really counting on are the opening of places in detention centres intended as small transitional infrastructures with a 'low level of security.' Van Quickenborne wants to open 15 of them by the end of the legislature.

Finding willing municipalities to accept them on their territory is proving to be a difficult task. So far only three have been confirmed, which will open in Chanly in the province of Luxembourg, after ones in Kortrijk (West Flanders) and Berkendael (Brussels).

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