Belgium Abolishes Short Prison Sentences

The country's action is part of a global criminal justice reform movement.
(Photo: Darrin Kimek/Getty Images)
Mar 20, 2015· 0 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Belgium’s government has announced it will abolish prison sentences of less than one year, a move intended partly to reduce the country’s bloated, expensive criminal justice system. The Belgian justice minister, Koen Geens, said short prison sentences “rarely lead to good results” and make it harder for incarcerated people to become full participants in society. Geens’ comments echo a growing body of research that explores the increased likelihood people will return to prison after release.

Belgium’s abolishment of short-term sentences is the latest front in the growing prison reform movement. Much of the movement is being driven by financial pressures, but it’s also being driven by a sense of human rights. In 2011, a U.S. State Department report said prison overcrowding was one of Belgium’s two primary challenges, in addition to racial and religious discrimination.

In the U.S., the prison reform movement has been gaining momentum since the Great Recession. It’s also being driven by an unusual coalition of religious and fiscal conservatives as well as liberals. In recent weeks, the Obama administration has outlined a broad vision to overhaul America’s criminal justice system. But on the issue of prisons, the key question is: Will the U.S. follow Belgium’s lead?