Marc Groenhuijsen

Harsher punishment is unscientific and causes even more suffering

Passion 5min. Tineke Bennema

After spending his entire working career of 35 years at Tilburg University, Professor Marc Groenhuijsen is leaving. A week before his valedictory address, he talks about his commitment to a just society, his interest in criminal law and the voice of victims, his work as a down-to-earth judge and what changes there have been at the university and in society as a whole when it comes to the law.

Foto: Wilfried Scholtes

On the windowsill in his room, in which all of the walls are lined with books, sits an owl. It’s a barn owl, with a white head, golden wings and a wise look on its face. Anyone entering the room is immediately met by its piercing gaze. Its right wing is resting next to its feet.

Is it a symbol of the wisdom that will soon be vacating the room?

‘No, it was a gift from colleagues and the fact that it has a loose wing makes the owl easier to clean’, he says with a laugh. Having spent his entire career at this single faculty, he says ‘yes, it’s truly extraordinary and a great privilege, because I was appointed professor at a very early age, when I was just 30.’

What made you focus on criminal law?

‘I opted for law because I’m interested in people. Other areas of law are all about money, but criminal law really focuses in on human problems and suffering. In a criminal case, in the wake of a crime, the victim has experienced suffering that you can never completely eradicate and the application of criminal law also involves inflicting suffering on another. How do you strike a balance in that? You need to be careful that you don’t cause even more injustice. Criminal law is always bad news. If it features in the headlines, it always means trouble and suffering. But by focusing attention on the victims, you can finally do something good, something useful and just. In order to protect the victims and organize criminal justice properly and prevent them from becoming victims all over again.

I’d rather face real world problems with real people

 

I don’t want to sit in an ivory tower, I’d rather open the window and face real world problems with real people. Focus on the victims. But it’s also important not to forget that those who commit crimes are also people, even if they’ve done something terrible. This is not some left-of-field alternative idea to suggest they shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions, but you need to look at the background. I’ve also served as a judge and when you read what some criminals have been through, it's often much worse than an unhappy childhood. Some of it is frankly unimaginable. When you have to deal with that as a judge, you need to have empathy.’

So, you’re actually a bit of a do-gooder?

‘Yes, you can call it that, because that’s the purpose of the law. To promote as much justice as possible within society. You identify obvious forms of injustice and try to change them. This includes the fact that victims have been ignored for far too long. Bear in mind that some four million people in the Netherlands are victims of a crime every year. That is why it was fantastic that we were able to set up the Intervict Institute back in 2005. After I’d received several international prizes for my academic work in 2003, I was approached by the then Rector Magnificus Frank van der Duyn Schouten with the idea of setting up an institute of this kind. I was made its director and was able to appoint some really good people. We worked extremely hard with Victim Support Netherlands and international organizations in an effort to bring an end to injustice for victims. I’m very grateful that it proved successful and I’ve tried to back that up academically, together with my colleagues, Jan van Dijk, Rianne Letschert, psychologist Frans Willem Winkel and by collaborating across disciplines.’

Groenhuijsen spearheaded the institute for a decade. ‘It may sound immodest, but everyone internationally knows that this leading institute is part of Tilburg University. Across the world, the need for victims to be seen and heard has now been acknowledged. Of course, I’m disappointed that the institute has since been disbanded. Victim support is needed now more than ever, with so many refugees, for example. But victimology has also started to spring up at other universities, including in Leiden with people who gained their PhDs at Intervict and at the NSCR (Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement). Interest in it has grown rather than decreased and it was given the boost it needed by what we did at Intervict.’

You just mentioned that you’ve also worked as a judge as well as an academic, why did you want to do that and what has changed in law over the time you’ve been working in it?

‘Law professors need to be informed about what’s happening in practice. Students find it fascinating if you’ve actually practiced law. It’s a case of law in action rather than law in books. There’s no manual to tell you what punishment a criminal should receive. You need to actually be there to understand what it’s like to condemn someone to a life sentence. I’ve even had to do it myself once. Three of us discussed it and considered it thoroughly. It’s possible to convey some of that to students.

Every prison sentence is for life

 

There are many more occasions when you have to decide whether or not to send someone to prison. But every prison sentence is for life. It causes even more suffering. It’s never good for anyone. People always come out of it worse. A decent judge has to try to take decisions that will prevent people from ending up in prison. I’ve tried to convey this attitude to my students. In administering justice, society bears a significant moral responsibility when it comes to criminals. My job is not to moralize, it’s not about making ethical judgements about other people, but about rational and factual arguments.

I’m strongly opposed to calls from society for harsher punishments. But the tone of public discord has hardened, people are demanding harsher punishments and politics has embraced this view, because it attracts votes. But we know from our research that harsher punishment does not help. As academics, our role is to make society as fair as possible and ensure it becomes safer. You don’t make things any safer by inflicting harsher punishment. On the contrary. Just look at all the jampacked prisons in the United States.

Looking at it pragmatically, I see it as nonsensical, irrational and even unscientific. All the evidence shows that prison doesn’t improve people. But, unfortunately, too little attention is paid to the views of academics.’

What changes have you seen at the university?

‘As far as I see it, a lot of things have changed for the better, in the teaching process, and more thought is now given to how you convey knowledge and how you should assess. However, there’s one thing that concerns me: when I started out, there was a culture of trust that enabled people like me to develop personally and as a department. But the bureaucracy and accountability procedures have transformed much of that, creating a culture of mistrust. My motto was always: recruit the best people and give them the space they want, while of course ensuring they’re accountable financially and in terms of their results. Obviously, freedom is not without obligations.’

How do you look back on your career?

‘I’d sum it up in two words: gratitude and satisfaction. I’ve had every opportunity to do what I wanted to do. But I’d add a footnote: I’d like my successor to have as many opportunities, freedom and possibilities as I’ve had. Of course, it's not always been plain sailing. I was the Dean of this Faculty at a very early age but was also made Interim Dean (chuckles), the administrative term for dictator, in order to resolve the crisis at TSB in 1998. That necessitated four million in cutbacks and forty people had to be made redundant. It was a difficult job, but the fact that it went smoothly was satisfying. Within a couple of years, things were back on track.

It’s about allowing people to do what they’re good at

 

I’m incredibly proud and happy to have educated some 57 doctoral candidates, of whom 13 have become professors and three Supreme Court justices. This is not because I’m a good supervisor, but I can quickly spot talent. It’s about allowing people to do what they’re good at. You don’t have to tell them how to write. You just hope that they leave this office with more energy than when they entered it.’

In a couple of months, this office will have a new occupant. As for the owl, it's also leaving along with the professor.

 

Biography