Alternative sentencing to reduce prison crowding needs more funding, says Flemish justice minister

Alternative sentencing to reduce prison crowding needs more funding, says Flemish justice minister
Credit: Belga

While alternative sentencing may help alleviate crowding in Flemish prisons, the Minister of Justice for Flanders made clear yesterday that such initiatives are costly.

“Constantly shifting the workload without the corresponding additional financial resources is not acceptable to me,” said Zuhal Demir in a statement.

In the annual report published yesterday by the Central Supervision Board for the Prison System, it was noted that “a lot of problems and inconveniences for management, prison staff, and for detainees” are the direct result of pressure on prison capacity in Flanders.

This is despite measures taken to reduce crowding during the pandemic due to health concerns.

Amnesty International warned that people in crowded prisons were especially vulnerable to the coronavirus and Belgium experienced multiple outbreaks of the virus in its prisons during the pandemic.

But Demir said that those measures, which included early release and extended leave, come at a cost.

“The pressure on the Flemish houses of justice and the Flemish Centre for Electronic Surveillance (VCET) increased hugely due to the increasing number of alternative sanctions, including electronic surveillance and community service,” said Demir.

“Heaven and earth were moved to provide additional ankle bracelets and enormous efforts are still being made to provide additional performance places for work punishments to prevent impunity from arising and work punishments from not being carried out in time. Continuing in this vein will have major consequences.”

Demir also added that electronic surveillance should “not become the rule for all punishments.”

Electronic surveillance, or the wearing of ankle bracelet tracking devices, became more common as the federal judicial system gave fewer prison sentences during the pandemic in order to reduce crowding.

Judges also tended to favour work sentences, but Demir said this can be particularly challenging because it isn’t always easy to find enough willing employers, even among local authorities.

Demir has created places among agencies like Natuur en Bos, OVAM, Natuurpunt and some larger local authorities, but emphasised that such resources aren’t inexhaustible.

“There is not an infinite capacity for this,” said Demir, adding that shifting the workload without resources increases the problem.

Demir said she plans to consult Belgium’s federal minister of justice Vincent Van Quickenborne about the problem, emphasising that if the government intends to invest in more alternative sentencing, such initiatives must be accompanied by additional financial backing.

“Ankle bracelets, community service places and judicial assistants are not inexhaustible,” said Demir.

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