5 — Crime

Sub-project 5: Debating crime and drugs: The United States as a reference model for Dutch concepts and practices, 1890-1990

PhD candidate: Lisanne Walma


This project aims to examine the referential role of the United States with respect to concepts and practices associated with the development of Dutch criminology and penal and drug policies in the twentieth century.


The Netherlands has long been regarded as an outstanding symbol of tolerance in penal and drug policies. When we take a closer look, however, this apparent exceptional status is not so obvious. In a 2007 survey of historical changes in the Dutch penal climate, the criminologists David Downes and René van Swaaningen argue that Dutch exceptional status in the twentieth century should be considered as an interlude. Recent evidence suggests that the Dutch are becoming more and more ‘American’ in fighting crime and drugs. The Netherlands appears to have followed the United States in the emergence of what American sociologist David Garland has labeled a ‘culture of control’.


The repressive turn in Dutch penal and drug policies at the end of the twentieth century seems to resemble, in reverse fashion, the liberal turn in the 1950s and 1960s. In both eras the Dutch way of managing crime and drugs was compared in public debates with American models, both favorably and unfavorably. Indeed, the consistent comparison with the United States is one of the fascinating characteristics of these debates.


The orientation toward the United States is not merely a late-twentieth-century phenomenon. Quite the contrary, references to crime, criminal justice and drug policies in the United States had already found their way into Dutch public discourse in the early 1900s (for example, in the discussion about the Prohibition).


This project investigates how the United States emerged as the dominant reference culture in Dutch public discourses on penal and drug policies in the twentieth century. The primary goal is to understand Dutch views on and practices of fighting crime and drugs as both national in focus and embedded in the international context provided by the United States—thus providing a global cultural perspective on shifting Dutch views on penal and drug policies.


Parallel to shifting criminal and drug policies, Dutch criminal law and criminology underwent several changes beginning in the late nineteenth century. At that time, public debates about degeneration and Darwinism reshaped penal policies and criminological research. The Dutch experienced a liberal and psychological turn in the 1950s and a biological shift in the 1990s. Dutch ideas about the nature and causes of criminal behavior and drug use have oscillated between biological determinism and environmentalism. These disparate explanations of criminal or addictive behavior resulted in a wide variety of prevention and treatment programs, from liberal psychosocial approaches up to the more coercive eugenics programs designed to eliminate criminal or addictive ‘traits’.


The trans-Atlantic nature of these developments has never been examined in a systematic way. This sub-project analyzes the ways in which penal and drug policies in the United States were perceived and projected in the Netherlands from 1890 to 1990. How did perceptions, knowledge, and beliefs about crime and drugs circulate and what role did the United States play as a reference culture? How did developments in the United States influence appreciation of deviance and control in Dutch public discourse and how were these articulated in criminology and penal and drug policies? And how did the various historical actors use and frame the differences and similarities between the United States and the Netherlands of coping with crime and drugs?


To find answers to these research questions that go beyond the debates in the news media, this project will examine the results of the digital ‘sentiment-mining’ newspaper analysis with a study of Dutch criminology and (bio-)anthropology journals (Mensch & Maatschappij), drug addiction journals, criminal justice journals (Delikt en Delinkwent), and police journals (Het Tijdschrift voor de Politie). A systematic review of secondary literature on the history of criminology in the United States as well as penal and drug policies will be part of the analysis.