Achter de schermen van de criminologie & rechtshandhaving

Fifty years of criminology in the Netherlands: a success story?

The thirtieth anniversary of NSCR seems a fitting occasion to look back at the history of this now prominent research centre against the background of overall trends in criminology in The Netherlands since 1970. What have been the main trends in Dutch criminology, how has the discipline evolved in terms of academic standing and what has been NSCR’s role in all this?

Critical criminology in the 70s

In the 1970s, many intellectuals radically questioned the ideological frames and value systems of neo-capitalist Western societies under the banner of the New Left. This critical stance manifested itself not only in a political discourse about the distribution of wealth and power but also in a reassessment of established notions in social and medical science. In psychiatry, authors like Szass and Laing questioned the concept of a mental patient and critiqued the oppressive nature of psychiatric treatments. Their so-called Anti-Psychiatry, in the Netherlands popularized by Jan Foudraine in a best-selling book about schizophrenia called Ben Ik van Hout? (1971), argued for the radical de-medicalisation and de-institutionalization of psychiatric care.

In this same anti-authoritarian mould, criminologists, informed by the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault on the history of punishment, critiqued the oppressive and discriminatory nature of criminal justice. According to critical criminologists the labelling of persons as criminals/delinquents worked as a self-fulfilling hypothesis by reinforcing their purportedly problematic social behaviour (a phenomenon dubbed ‘secondary deviance’). According to leading critical criminologists, Taylor, Walton and Young (1973), the discipline ought to study and explain the actions of criminal justice officials rather than those of persons exhibiting ‘deviant behaviour’. This new perspective was called “The Other Side of Criminology” in a textbook by Dutch criminologist Peter Hoefnagels of Erasmus University (Hoefnagels, 1973).

Other prominent protagonists of critical criminology in the Netherlands were Louk Hulsman of Erasmus University and Herman Bianchi of the Free University in Amsterdam. Both acquired national and international fame by arguing for the abolition of criminal justice and its replacement by forms of mediation or, as it is now called, Restorative Justice. According to Hulsman so called ‘crimes’ should be seen as incidents or conflicts better to be sorted out by the parties involved themselves. With this message they soon became public figures by speaking at popular conferences (‘teach ins’) and regular appearances on radio and TV. This way, they hugely raised the public profile of criminology and helped repositioning it from an auxiliary science of criminal law into a politically salient academic discipline in its own right. Almost all universities rushed to establish institutes of criminology in their law faculties, offering courses in this new exciting field.

On the negative side, the empirical basis of the grand theoretical visions of critical criminology remained rather underdeveloped, at least according to the standards of what was at the time dismissively dubbed ‘positivist criminology’. Retrospectively, criminology in the 1970s experienced an unprecedented heyday, with hindsight propelled more by time-bound ideologies and politics than by the findings of ground-breaking empirical research.

While critical criminologists were busy conferencing about the desired abolition of criminal justice, crime was steadily increasing across the Western world, not in the least in the Netherlands. Objections by critical criminologists that rises in police-recorded crime were mere statistical artefacts of expanding systems of repression were refuted by results of the first victimization surveys, pioneered in the USA and the Netherlands. Victimization by common crime was shown to be rampant and steeply rising. Critical criminology, with its focus on the (mal-) functioning of criminal justice, could neither explain the rise in common crime nor assist politicians in formulating a convincing response, other than by reducing penal repression. In the meantime, everyday crime was increasingly perceived by the public at large as a real nuisance and threat as evidenced by the massive purchase of anti-burglary devices and the emergence of initiatives to assist those personally harmed by crime such as shelter homes for batted women, rape crisis centres and victim support schemes.

Policy-oriented criminology in the 80s

Confronted by increasing crime and fear of crime, beleaguered Ministries of Justice across the Western world felt a need for criminological guidance, not on remedies for their own flaws and failings as demanded by the critical school, but on the causes of crime and effective interventions to tackle it.

In the USA, President Lyndon Johnson established a high-level committee on crime, which led to the report The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society recommending, inter alia, generous funding of research into the root causes of (violent) crime. In United Kingdom the Home Secretary invited a young criminologist, Ron Clarke, to lead an expanded Research and Planning Unit at the Home Office. A government under Labour would later introduce evidence-based crime reduction policies with the slogan Tough on Crime and on the Causes of Crime. Around the same time the Secretary General of the Ministry of Justice of the Netherlands, Albert Mulder, former professor of criminal law at Leiden University, invited Wouter Buikhuisen, professor of criminology at Groningen University, to set up an in-house research centre that could help the ministry formulating a pragmatic response to the perceived crisis in crime control. This initiative resulted in the establishment in 1973 of a fully-fledged Research and Documentation Centre at the Ministry of Justice, the RDC (WODC in Dutch).

The newly recruited, long-haired, and casually dressed social scientists, soon known in the elevators of the Justice building as “The gypsies of RDC” brought a breath of fresh air into the halls of a ministry traditionally dominated by lawyers. Their sway over the Ministry’s policies reached its zenith with the adoption in 1984 of a white paper called Society and Crime presenting a comprehensive package of evidence-based interventions to prevent and control common crime and assist victims. This plan, informed by prevailing criminological thinking, was largely drafted by RDC staff. Tellingly, ten percent of the newly disbursed funds were earmarked for monitoring and scientific evaluation. As a consequence, the new policy plan gave a boost to policy-oriented criminological research carried out by both the RDC itself and university-based research centres and specialized consultancy companies. A new infrastructure for empirical criminological research came into being.

The RDC-sponsored research was from the outset critiqued by Bianchi (1974) as Gouvernmental Criminology, meaning a criminology oiling the wheels of an intrinsically oppressive criminal justice system. My personal take on Society and Crime, and on the research informing it, is, perhaps unsurprisingly coming from a former director of the RDC, much more favourable. In my view, this policy plan helped to preserve the traditionally mild criminal policies of the Netherlands in the face of rising urban crime and international drug trafficking. Apart from this personal assessment of RDC’s political legacy, friends and foes will agree that thanks to Buikhuisen and his young Turks, Dutch criminology was put on a solid empirical footing. Showpieces of this new ‘empirical criminology’ were the annual survey among samples of the Dutch public on their personal experiences with crime, initiated by the RDC in 1974, and the subsequent, self-reported delinquency studies among young people of Josine Junger-Tas. Both would later grow into standardized, international surveys conducted in dozens of countries across the world.

Dutch criminology in the 90s and beyond

Towards the end of the 1980s, the RDC seemed to have run somewhat out of steam, whereas university-based criminology entered in a state of crisis. Buikhuisen’s plan to launch an ambitious research programme on biosocial criminology at Leiden University was met with vehement political opposition. The Dutch criminological community proved to be deeply divided on the issue, with Bianchi fanning the flames of the public outcry about ‘neo-Lombrosianism’. Buikhuisen himself was ostracized and, with his research effectively blocked, opted for early retirement in 1988. The tragic ending of Buikhuisen’s academic career is likely to have discouraged Dutch universities from funding further criminological adventures. Many of the institutes of criminology were either disbanded or severely curtailed.

At the time, Albert Mulder, former Secretary General of the Ministry of Justice and criminal law professor who, as mentioned, initiated the RDC, was serving as president of Dutch Research Council. He felt that Dutch criminology was in dire straits and needed to be revitalised. In 1992 he persuaded the Council and the Ministry of Justice to jointly fund an independent, university-based criminological institute focussing on fundamental academic research, the NSCR. Albert Mulder, therefore, deserves to be recognized as the intellectual godfather of both the RDC and NSCR. Arguably, no single person has played a more influential institutional role in the recent history of Dutch criminology than Mulder. It would be a fitting tribute to him if RDC and NSCR jointly commissioned a portrait of Albert Mulder to be alternately displayed in their respective offices in The Hague and Amsterdam.

NSCR, after a somewhat hesitant start, found its true form in the new century under the leadership of the late Gerben Bruinsma with a threefold programme focussing on the geography of crime, life course criminology, and the interfaces between criminal justice and citizens. In this framework, the centre, not unlike the RDC before, made great strides in basic criminological factfinding by setting up databases on criminal careers and the life course, recidivism among sexual offenders, the criminal careers of families over generations, and the geography of special categories of crimes such as burglaries. Incrementally, the Centre started to harness these large-scale databases to examine the various causal mechanisms underlying the multiple phenomena of crime and law enforcement under scrutiny. At this stage, the originally chosen three main research topics fanned out into other directions. Added to the three initial topics in the programme were new research themes such as intergenerational transmission, recruitment of young people by organized crime groups, domestic violence, extremism and terrorism, and, most recently, cybercrime, evidence-based policing, and victimology. The victimology stream secured new funding for its research on what works for victims from the Fund for Victim Support and Victim Support Netherlands.

Characterizing NSCR

While it seems fairly obvious that critical criminology of the 1970s was ideologically inspired, and the research programme of the RDC in the 1980s policy-oriented, it is more challenging to put a label on the type of criminology conducted by the NSCR. Undeniably, the studies conducted are empirical and apply the rigorous methods of modern empirical research. It seems harder, though, to pin down NSCR’s research in terms of theoretical orientation. It seems neither ‘critical’ nor actively oriented towards policy-making. It is most certainly not biosocial either. While reflecting on the nature of NSCR’s research I was reminded of the distinction made by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu between the approach of theorists and of those he calls researchers (in French: chercheurs). Theorists in his view collect data to test hypotheses derived from an established theory. Researchers collect data about certain phenomena in the real world ‘to get a full picture of it’. Even without a comprehensive understanding of Bourdieu’s typology, most NSCR staff seem to me to qualify more as chercheurs than as theorists.

Many examples of the outstanding research done by NSCR-based or raised ‘chercheurs’ could be given. I will here limit myself to just one, the work on criminal events of Marie Lindegaard , the newly appointed incumbent of a chair in the Dynamics of Violent Crime at the University of Amsterdam. In her research, videos taken by security cameras of real-life robberies are analysed to determine which behavioural interactions preceded the commission of a violent act. The study was not, it seems, designed to test any preconceived hypotheses about victim-offender interaction, such as those suggested in the early victimological writings of Benjamin Mendelsohn and Hans von Hentig. However, the highly realistic findings of her methodologically sophisticated study surely offer invaluable insights into the dynamics at play in the escalation of robberies into fatal violence, with obvious implications for preventive action.

The state of Dutch criminology

After having sketched with some broad strokes the recent history of Dutch criminology and NSCR’s place therein, I come to the key question whether the mission of Albert Mulder to provide a boost to academic criminology has succeeded? A beginning of an answer to this question can be found in the official evaluation reports of the centre itself, most lately the one of 2018. Herein NSCR was assessed as, and I quote, ‘world leading/excellent.’

To determine whether NSCR has accomplished its mission to advance criminology in the Netherlands at large, one can look at the standard indicators of academic achievement. Even without analysing the precise statistics, no one will deny that the numbers of publications by Dutch criminologists in international, peer-reviewed academic journals have risen significantly over the past twenty years. While my own generation of criminologists was complacent with publishing one or two pieces in the Journal of Dutch Criminology and a PhD in Dutch with an English summary, all PhD students and postdocs are now supposed to routinely publish in international journals. This quality change in the publication policy of Dutch criminology has undoubtedly been spear headed by NSCR staff. Thanks to the NSCR, Dutch empirical criminology has in the 21th century turned international.

Another indicator of academic success is membership of the European Society of Criminology, for which, by the way, the RDC provided the seed money. Over the years Dutch criminologists have formed one of the largest contingents among the ESC membership, vastly outranking colleagues from France, Germany or Italy, countries with century-old traditions of criminological research.

Finally, also the numbers of students pursuing bachelor or master’s degrees in criminology at universities in the Netherlands are now higher than they have ever been before. Counts of thousands of bachelor and hundreds of master students, necessitating the introduction of a numerus fixus, were unimaginable only thirty years ago. A Dutch textbook in criminology from 1990 is now in its 12th edition.

Dutch criminology has come in many academic respects a long way.

To conclude

NSCR director Beate Völker has kindly invited the speakers of today (NSCR Lustrum 2022, red.) to reflect on how the work of NSCR could be improved in the foreseeable future. I respectfully beg to be excused from this task. In my opinion, the only proven method of research planning is to fund and promote teams with a proven track record in conducting innovative research. The NSCR is such a team. As the English saying goes, never change a winning team.

This metaphor reminds me of a comment about NSCR made by one of the by now many young Dutch criminology professors. He compared the NSRC to the German soccer club Bayern München. Solid defense, technically and tactically without fault.  Wins most of its matches. And yet this is a backhanded compliment and meant to be so.

Its hidden message is, yes, indeed NSCR is performing well but is not yet ……the Ajax of Dutch criminology! For an Amsterdam based centre of excellence this must be a truly offensive observation. Being compared to Ajax should be the centre’s obvious new target for the future. And what would it take to bring NSCR to this next level? Perhaps a handful of star players from Surinamese, Turkish or Moroccan descent?

I will end my speculations about what needs to be done. These are questions best left to the discussions over drinks later this afternoon.

To the NSCR staff: Well done folks, and keep up the good work.

Jan van Dijk, emeritus professor Tilburg University

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