Repeat offenders usually have to spend even longer behind bars

25 Jan 2024

The House of Representatives has called to impose heavier penalties on criminals who relapse. However, reoffending convicts already tend to get given heavier sentences than first-time offenders. This was concluded by by Sonja Meijer, Professor of Penitentiary Law, and colleagues after conducting research.

First-time offenders are sentenced to an average of 2.8 years’ imprisonment by a judge, whereas for recidivists – those who commit a crime again – the average is 3.7 years. This was revealed by research conducted by Sonja Meijer and colleagues, based on 766 judicial rulings of various types of violent crimes. Additionally, the researchers examined numerous case files and conducted interviews with, among others, judges and lawyers.

‘In interviews, judges also told us that harsher penalties are imposed for recidivism,’ says the Professor of Penitentiary Law. ‘After all, the offense has already been committed before, and suspects know the consequences.’

Meijer and her colleagues conducted the research on assignment by the Scientific Research and Data Center and at the request of former Minister for Legal Protection Sander Dekker (VVD). He initiated the research following questions from Members of Parliament Caroline van der Plas (BBB) and Joost Eerdmans (JA21) about the possibilities of imposing harsher penalties on recidivists after three serious violent crimes.


However, according to Meijer, it cannot simply be stated that recidivism constitutes an aggravating circumstance, and a clean criminal record serves as a mitigating factor. ‘Judges sometimes make that mistake too,’ she says. ‘But not having a criminal record is the norm, so it’s not a reason to impose a lighter sentence. Conversely, having a criminal record can indeed increase a sentence.’

Sonja Meijer. Photo: RU

However, recidivism is not the only factor determining the duration or severity of a sentence, concludes Meijer. Alongside the committed offense, the personal circumstances of the defendant also play a role.

‘This can involve many aspects,’ says Meijer. ‘Is the context of the offense different from the first committed offense? Does the defendant invoke the right to remain silent or not? Has he or she apologized to the victim? Does the defendant have an addiction? Are there compelling family circumstances? Will the defendant lose his or her home due to detention?’ These considerations may result in judges not imposing stricter penalties in cases of recidivism.


The researchers recommend that judges always justify their verdicts as thoroughly as possible – especially when there is recidivism and judges do not impose stricter penalties. Meijer explains that judges do not always do this, partly due to lack of time. ‘Additionally, the more you justify, the more vulnerable your judgment becomes to appeal (if convicted individuals go to appeal).’

Another important conclusion from the research is that judges sometimes misapply the law in cases of recidivism. According to criminal law, judges may increase the maximum penalty for a certain offense by one-third for convicts who commit a new crime within five years. ‘Not all judges interpret this provision correctly. Some judges, for example, believe that recidivism committed beyond the five-year period should no longer be considered as aggravating, while that is precisely not stated in the statutory provision.’

‘I hope that Members of Parliament don’t simply dismiss the research’

According to Meijer, the research demonstrates that confidence in the judiciary and in the imposition of appropriate sentences by judges is justified. ‘Because judges take recidivism into account in their rulings, we believe there is no need for minimum sentences or a 3-strikes-out policy (imposing an extra severe sanction on a third conviction).’

However, it’s now up to the politicians. Before the summer, Minister Franc Weerwind (D66), Sander Dekker’s successor, will give a response on behalf of the government to the study. It remains to be seen what Members of Parliament will do with the results. ‘I hope they don’t simply dismiss the research.’

Translated by Siri Joustra

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