30/05/2012 13:14 BST | Updated 30/07/2012 06:12 BST

Going Dutch: Can We Follow the Netherlands and Cut Our Prison Population?

A new report by Rob Allen, published by the Criminal Justice Alliance, not only reminds us that England and Wales has the dubious accolade of locking up more people per head of population than any other country in Western Europe, but that we are now falling even further behind in tackling high prison levels.

Since the middle of the last decade several European countries, particularly the Netherlands and Germany, have seen sharp falls in their prison populations - so too has Finland and Portugal. In stark contrast, in England and Wales prison numbers have continued to grow despite falling crime.

Since 2004 the total numbers incarcerated in the Netherlands has fallen from more than 20,000 to less than 15,000. The Dutch Ministry of Justice expects the number of prisoners to continue to decline and to average less than 9,000 by 2015. The Netherlands now uses the spare capacity to lease space at Tilburg jail to house 500 prisoners from Belgium, whose prisons are severely overcrowded. Last week the new French Justice Minister outlined plans to reform prisons, and she is widely expected to re-orientate budgets away from prison building to rehabilitation.

This trend is not restricted to Europe. US states like New York have seen their prison numbers decline since 2000. Although the causes remain contested, what is clear is that investing in drug treatment programmes for nonviolent offenders, rather than custody, contributed to the drop. More recently Texas has curbed its prison binge through, amongst other things, an expansion of treatment and diversion programmes and reforms to the use of breach.

While some may hit back that the crime drop in England and Wales is due to higher levels of prison this flouts international evidence. Comparative studies find no straightforward relationship between the size of the prison population in a country and the level of recorded crime. An EU study by Van Dijk and colleagues concluded that "sentencing policies in Europe as a whole are considerably less punitive than in the USA... and yet crime is falling just as steeply in Europe as it is in the USA. No relationship between the severity of sentencing of countries and trends in national levels of crime is therefore in evidence."

This recent Criminal Justice Alliance report points to a number of features in continental justice systems that are associated with a more moderate use of prison. These include greater availability of mediation and restorative justice options at various stages of the criminal justice process (a key CJA campaign), more flexibility in dealing with breach and infrequent use of life and indeterminate sentences. We should take note. An ever-expanding, bloated penal system is not an inevitable; working towards lower levels of imprisonment is a possible and credible policy to pursue.