Wiene van Hattum fights to reform criminal law
Life sentences are too cruel
During one of her visits to the Norgerhaven prison, a man who had been sentenced to life asked Wiene van Hattum an urgent question. ‘Are you the teacher? Do you know how long a life sentence is?’
Van Hattum was on one of her monthly visits to the prison with her criminal law students. She wanted to give them insight into life inside a prison. The question was asked by Cevdet Y., who had killed six people in Café ‘t Koetsiertje in Delft in 1983, during a psychotic attack. ‘I thought: gosh, doesn’t he know how it works?’
Unable to forget his question, she started doing research. Van Hattum met with other detainees who’d been sentenced to life in prison and discovered that the strict regulations introduced by politicians in 2004 meant they had no prospects whatsoever. The reality was that they would likely die in prison. This was the start of her efforts towards a more humane treatment of these prisoners.
Van Hattum’s career is built on the concept that offenders are human beings and that they should be treated as such. She learned the concept from her father, a professor of criminal law and later a criminal judge. In fact, the seed for her love for criminal law may have been planted when she was still in her mother’s belly. ‘My father wrote a book about Dutch criminal law and would read from it at night to my mother. She would invariably fall asleep. I was exposed to the law before I was even born’, says Van Hattum, laughing.
Gosh, doesn’t he know how it works?
It was only natural that she would become a criminal lawyer. Later, she took a job as lecturer of penitentiary law at the University of Groningen. In 1997, she started the Norgerhaven visitation group, which led to her meeting with Cevdet Y. She’s since retired but remains an honorary assistant professor at the university.
Van Hattum says the hopelessness of many long-term detainees’ situations reached a low point when Lucia de B. was sentenced to life in prison and hospital detention in 2003. The court’s reasoning behind the sentence was that she wasn’t allowed to be a danger to society in case she was ever pardoned. Hospital detention and a life sentence was the best solution, they said. ‘Completely absurd’, says Van Hattum. ‘No detainee who’d been sentenced to life had ever been pardoned when they were still considered dangerous. But the court apparently thought this could happen. I was aghast at this way of thinking. The fact that not even the court knew what a pardon for a life sentence meant was baffling.’
Van Hattum wasn’t the only one who felt this way. She talked to various experts who were all concerned about the fate of long-term prisoners in one way or another. In 2008, she and these experts started the organisation Forum Levenslang. The Ministry of Justice gave Van Hattum access to the files of prisoners who’d been pardoned in the twentieth century. ‘I was stunned at how humanely civil servants treated long-term prisoners back then. They were genuinely concerned about them and their prospects. At the time, a life sentence didn’t actually mean someone was imprisoned until their death; detainees could be released early. When the safety mentality took over at the start of this century, the way we treated detainees with a life sentence changed radically.’
The issue with the Dutch system is that whether someone is fit to return to society isn’t determined by an independent judge, but rather by the minister for Legal Protection. That person is currently Sander Dekker, someone who feels that a life sentence should last until someone’s death.
There were plenty of signs that it wasn’t working
In 2013, the European Court of Justice determined this was at odds with European law. ‘Forum Levenslang has been arguing for an independent review by a judge for years’, says Van Hattum. But no changes have been made. Why does she think the Netherlands is still getting away with this?
‘Minister Dekker just didn’t feel like doing anything about it’, Van Hattum says. ‘He went so far as to tell the European Committee on Human Rights that a life sentence should truly be a sentence for life.’ She also thinks judges weren’t vocal enough in criticising the system. ‘It’s kind of like the child allowance affair. Everyone’s aware of the issue, but no one’s doing anything about it. Criminal judges could have done more, criticised the system more. There were plenty of signs that it wasn’t working.’
It’s not just long-term detainees that are being left to fend for themselves, says Van Hattum. Victims are also suffering. The minister of Legal Protection doesn’t consult with victims and relatives until a long-term detainee appears in front of the advisory body for detainees with a life sentence after twenty-five years. Van Hattum outright dismisses the idea that this is to protect the victims. ‘Victims aren’t being included in the real story. In fact, the minister is promoting their victimhood. It doesn’t help to keep reminding relatives that they’ve been sentenced to life as well.’
It doesn’t help to keep reminding relatives that they’ve been sentenced to life as well
It doesn’t do to only focus on the past after twenty-five years, she says. ‘You need to look at how both the victims and the perpetrators have grown. You must include victims in the entire process. Not just in determining the sentence. You have to help them in the rest of their life as well.’
Van Hattum would advise the minister to look ahead. On January 19, Dekker was forced to take back his refusal to pardon Cevdet Y. for years. After he’d ignored the court’s advice to pardon Y. three times, he was called to order. It was the first time since 1986 that someone who’d been sentenced to life received a pardon. It was a high point for Van Hattum. ‘I’m so happy for the man. But I’m also happy for the Netherlands. It’s a victory of the rule of law over the minister of Legal Protection.’
Minister Dekker wrote to the Lower House that he’d done everything in his power to prevent this from happening. Nevertheless, it looks like doubt has got a hold of him, too. During an interview with NOS, he publicly wondered if perhaps it would be better for a judge to preside over these matters. ‘In Europe, we feel that people who’ve been sentenced to life should have the option of release. I hope the minister for Legal Protection understands that he’s bound by European law.’
Van Hattum and her colleagues at Forum Levenslang are only too glad to help him understand. If he doesn’t take steps to change, she will continue her fight. ‘We’d love to take those objections the minister explicitly mentioned to the European Court. The chance that our complaint will be heard has only been increased by his frank letter’, says Van Hattum.
She certainly has her work cut out for her. Van Hattum looks to the future, but occasionally thinks back to the past. She smiles. ‘I think my father would have loved Forum Levenslang.’