On 10 May 2022, the Dutch House of Representatives will vote on a possible raise of the maximum penalty for manslaughter from fifteen to twenty-five years. This proposal is notably because of the big difference with the maximum sentence for murder, which is thirty years or life in prison. Sanne Struijk, Professor of Penal Law at Erasmus School of Law, explains the developments in these two types of homicide to EenVandaag.
Manslaughter and murder are comparable crimes, but there is also a significant difference, explains Struijk: “Manslaughter and murder are both homicides where the perpetrator intentionally kills the victim. They are closely related, but the difference is that murder is premeditated manslaughter.” Premeditation is when a perpetrator has had the chance to deliberate on the (taken) decision to take another one’s life. This chance to deliberate is sufficient when they had the opportunity to think about the meaning and the consequences of their intended action and take it into account. This is why murder traditionally is considered by the legislator a more severe crime than manslaughter, which is reflected in the corresponding difference in the maximum penalty.
The difference in maximum penalty between these two crimes was less of a problem until 2012. “In 2012 and 2013, the Dutch Supreme Court has refined the burden of proof for premeditation. As a result, a judge now has to specify in his verdict and motivation why it is reasonable to assume that the suspect has used the time and opportunity to deliberate. Since this refinement, we see that many severe homicides that used to be categorised as murder are now qualified as manslaughter”, says Struijk. This shift is also shown by a published study in 2019 by Struijk and colleagues. This research shows that the average imposed prison sentence has significantly increased in recent years in cases of manslaughter and murder.
For the families in severe cases of manslaughter, it is sometimes incomprehensible why there is such a big difference in the maximum penalty for murder. Since 2006, the maximum sentence for murder has been raised from twenty to thirty years. “That is why there is a ‘gap’ of fifteen years between murder and manslaughter and why the legislator is thinking about raising the maximum for manslaughter”, according to Struijk.
A more prominent role for the victim
Criminal (Procedural) Law increasingly values the role of the victim of a crime. This increasing role is also visible in implementing the prison sentence, whereas previously, the focus was mainly set on resocialisation (bringing convicted felons back into society in a responsible manner). Currently, there is policy change, explains the Professor of Penal Law at the Erasmus University: “The emphasis has shifted to retaliation and on the deterrent effect of punishment and the interest of the victim and their families.”