NEWS broke from the Netherlands last week that the Dutch government plans to close five of its prisons over the next few years because the cost of maintaining them is too high. A plan that admittedly sounds a little bleak on first reflection, but the underlying reason is definitely to be celebrated

 The closures come thanks to the country’s declining crime rate – or in other words, a lack of prisoners.

This is the third time the Netherlands has embarked on mass jail closures, having already closed 23 in total since 2014, with crime rates in the country dropping at an average annual rate of 0.9%.

Even despite renting out prison space to countries like Belgium and Norway, prisons are still lying empty – and the Dutch government has big plans to put them to better use for the benefit of the country.

READ MORE: UNRWA: Israel needs the agency to continue operating

The Dutch government said that the decision is the culmination of intentional policy to pass shorter prison sentences as well as the steadily declining rate of serious crime. Admittedly a bit of a geek in terms of criminal justice reform, I couldn’t not delve into this a little further.

Most interestingly, what I found was that while inmate numbers in the Netherlands have plummeted by more than 20,000 in two decades, inmate numbers in the UK increased by more than 10,000 in the same time period.

The Netherlands has also seen a sharp decline in jail sentences for young offenders, and the adoption of a rehabilitation approach was cited as the reason that in 2018, more than half of offenders did not go on to re-offend – a result that the UK could learn much from, given that here around 75% of offenders will re-offend within nine years of leaving the prison system.

In essence, the UK’s approach to criminal justice has us entrapped in a cycle of perpetual prison building to house offenders who are statistically very likely to re-offend, for the benefit of precisely no-one and at the expense of the taxpayer, and the most vulnerable in society.

The National: She was sentenced at Medway Magistrates Court

Meanwhile the Netherlands has freed up resources from enforcing punitive criminal justice measures that are instead invested in pressing societal issues like housing shortages and refugee intake. And those at risk of offending, or those who have offended in the past, are supported to better their lives and are treated with compassion.

The Netherlands’ decriminalisation of drug use and sex work is undoubtedly a key player in this conversation.

By treating drug addiction through the lens of public health rather than criminal justice, harm reduction and rehabilitation have been the focal point of policy, which has unsurprisingly led to a decrease in drug-related crime. And the legalisation and subsequent regulation of the sex work industry have led to safer working conditions and a state obligation to protect the rights of sex workers, as is the case for every other industry.

The legislation made a distinction between voluntary sex work and forced prostitution, with the latter being a key crackdown target for consecutive governments since legalisation in 1999.

Though this hasn’t come without its challenges and subsequent short-sighted policies such as Project 1012 that rolled back some of the most important progress made in the sex work industry in history, it’s clear that legalisation in these contexts has reduced prison capacity significantly, and has resulted in better outcomes for society and would-be offenders.

READ MORE: Scottish Labour ‘doing absolutely nothing on Brexit’, SNP say

The move also allowed for focus to be directed to the prevention and tackling of serious crime.

We can like it or lump it, as we in the UK are in the midst of our largest prison-building programme in the last century while the Netherlands are re-purposing former prisons into vital community infrastructure like schools and student accommodation, addressing shortages and bettering outcomes for local communities.

An example of a tried and tested rehabilitation and human rights centred approach to criminal justice that works. And as a result, because the needs of the population are being more readily met, crime rates are plummeting.

How much longer can the UK march ahead with the tried and perpetually failed “tough on crime” approach before we finally admit that we’ve got it spectacularly wrong?

Unfortunately, I won’t hold my breath for the time being.

Given the psychology of crime and its root causes, and the UK’s diabolical record on poverty and inequality, it doesn’t take a genius to decipher why our criminal justice system is hurtling in an almost impressively opposite direction to that of our Dutch friends.

READ MORE: Tory MSP criticised for billing taxpayer for 'vanity' photos

I fear the political priorities of successive Westminster governments not only haven’t done enough to tackle public safety, but actively and knowingly contribute to its hindrance. Basic knowledge of crime reduction tells us that if people are sufficiently fed, watered, housed and have what they need, crime falls.

In a United Kingdom of nations where almost 30% of children go to bed hungry, is it any wonder we are contending with a spiralling criminal justice system?

It’s time for a serious remodelling of how our society functions, and criminal justice is a great place to start because genuine reform requires a holistic approach that begins and ends with how our government approaches its greatest responsibility – the safety of its citizens, and the lengths it will go to to ensure our basic human rights are sufficiently met.

A topic for an independent Scotland perhaps, given that while Rishi Sunak’s day in the sun seems to thankfully be coming to an end, his Labour clone Keir Starmer is unlikely to do a radical shake-up of, well, anything.