22 June 1998

Majority Of Dutch Now Favour Capital Punishment

A majority of the Dutch population now favour the death penalty, according to a surprising new study by the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Criminality and Law Enforcement (NISCALE) at Leiden University. Though slim at 52 per cent, the figure reflects a dramatic swing in public opinion - one that is causing experts to scratch their heads and wonder why a country famous for its progressive views on crime and punishment has suddenly come to second guess its traditional revulsion towards the gallows.

Results of the study show that most of those in favour are to be found among the young and the less educated. Nearly all perceive crime to be one of society's greatest problems. High-profile paedophile cases - especially the recent Dutroux child-murder case in Belgium - are thought to have contributed to the pro-capital punishment cause.

"We asked those who were in favour of the death penalty for what kind of crimes the court should be given the power to impose the death penalty," says psychologist Peter van Koppen, chief investigator at NISCALE. "Five percent named a specific case, and all the same: the Dutroux case in Belgium ... Also, a considerably large number mentioned child molestation and abuse."

The researchers speculate that the swing may be a temporary one, with numbers favouring the death penalty subsiding to normal levels when publicity about the Dutroux case dies down.

"A journalist suggested to me that the rise in support for the death penalty might come from foreigners, who often come from countries in which the death penalty is common," adds van Koppen. "I checked that, but found no difference between native Dutchmen and people coming from these kinds of countries."

Will the results of the study have any effect on policy in the Netherlands? "I am glad it has none whatsoever," says van Koppen. "There has always been support for the death penalty in this country (between 35 and 43 per cent of the population), but none of the political parties - not even the most right wing - supported the death penalty since the beginning of the '50s."