The federal parliament yesterday gave its approval to a proposal aimed making it easier for people sentenced to a short term in prison to request alternative types of supervision.
At present, the law says that a person sentenced to less than three years can only request an alternative such as house arrest, night-only detention (for those with jobs) or an electronic ankle-bracelet after they have served one-third of their sentence.
In practice, however, those with sentences of under three years rarely even see the inside of a prison, mainly for reasons of over-crowding. But those who request an alternative still have to go inside to make the request.
The new bill would make it possible to make the request while at liberty, which would go some way to easing the pressure on prisons. However some offences will be excluded from the new procedure, depending on the gravity of the offence.
In the meantime, another amendment to the law is due to come into force in December which the new bill could render more practicable. That law would ensure that anyone sentenced to less than three years would indeed spend some time behind bars.
Justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne (Open VLD), who was not in office when the measure was passed, welcomed the change.
The current regime, he said, “creates an atmosphere of impunity. From December 2021, all sentences under three years will be served.”
It will, however, run up against the barrier of a shortage of prison places. Worse than a shortage: According to the latest figures available online, for a total capacity of all prisons of 9,592 prisoners, the actual prison population was 11,769.
Van Quickenborne has boasted of a budget that will allow half a billion euros in extra spending per year for the rest of this government’s term. However money does not easily translate into prison places.
A mega-prison in Haren on the outskirts of Brussels is finally under construction, after years of objections from local people. But completion is scheduled for 2022, while Van Quickenborne aims to start growing the prison population in six months.
Apart from Haren, a new prison is planned in Dendermonde (2022), with others in Antwerp (2024), and Leopoldsburg, Sugny and Verviers (all 2025) coming later.