Banishing ex-offenders and suspects for neighbourhood safety
Policies to improve neighbourhood safety challenge the law’s boundaries. Banishing ex-offenders from neighbourhoods is questionable, but what about excluding people who are merely suspected of disorder? You’d better be nice to your neighbours.
In a previous blog, I introduced the Rotterdam Law. This Law allows municipalities to appoint ‘problem neighbourhoods’ and implement special measures to improve neighbourhood safety (see for a critique here [in Dutch]). In another blog, I wrote about a proposal to extend the Law and set a ‘behaviour requirement’ for prospective renters. Parliament will vote on this proposal in September.
If the proposal is accepted, prospective tenants have to apply for a Certificate of Good Conduct (in Dutch: VOG), a declaration by the Minister of Security and Justice which declares that the applicant did not commit any criminal offences that pose a risk to neighbourhood safety. The behaviour requirement applies to all household members including children from the age of 12.
Additionally, municipalities want to screen tenants for nuisance and disorderly behaviour. Because the VOG does not allow examining the police records of persons without a previous conviction, the plan is to make it possible based on the Rotterdam Law.
This proposal raises all sorts of (new) questions. A fundamental objection is that even though the goal of the behaviour requirement is not to punish, it is a punishment in its consequences. If we value ex-offenders being given a second chance, we should not punish people twice. Particularly when it concerns children and adolescents, for whom delinquency is usually a passing phase and re-integration so essential.
Moreover, risk assessment is far from watertight. At the very least, it should be clear what offences qualify as risks to neighbourhood safety, and why. The proposal mentions violence, youth crime, disorder and drug-related crime. But if I get caught possessing a small amount of drugs, am I a risk to neighbourhood safety? If a kid steals a t-shirt from a local shop, is that a risk?
Be nice to your neighbours
Furthermore, what qualifies as ‘disorder’? Definitions of disorder vary greatly among people. Graffiti, for example, can be crime, or art. Drinking in public: people unwinding after work on Friday evening, or annoying homeless people? Fifteen years ago, nobody thought I was a ‘risk’ to neighbourhood safety when I loitered with friends outside, but now youths, especially young men with a non-Dutch appearance, have very different experiences – I never knew the local police officer but they most likely do. The volume of music, talk and traffic in my street is normal (I think), but would invoke many complaints in other streets. Definitions of disorder reflect certain but not necessarily everyone’s standards.
What is most worrisome is that the Rotterdam Law would allow screening based on police records even of those without a previous conviction. The risk is that tenants are excluded from housing based on suspected disorderly behaviour and filed complaints. We know neighbours don’t always get along and fights can escalate. So you’d better be nice to your neighbours!
Improving neighbourhood safety is necessary in certain neighbourhoods. But just as citizens should respect rules, the government should respect their own rules: no-one should be punished twice, and certainly not for an offence that may have never occurred.