Criminal assets: how do you return confiscated assets to society?

Title Lab: Cashback
Commisioner: Provincie Noord-Brabant & Taskforce RIEC (vanuit de Embassy of Safety)
Designstudio: Studio Sociaal Centraal
Presentation moment: tijdens DDW22

Type Update
Published on 13 April 2023
Part of Embassy of Safety
Criminal assets: how do you return confiscated assets to society?
Part of Embassy of Safety

Expensive cars, a Rolex, designer clothes or just cash: criminal assets come in many forms. By confiscating these items, the government hits criminals where it hurts: in their wallets. But how can this wealth then flow back to society? In the Embassy Lab Cashback, the Province of Noord-Brabant and Taskforce-RIEC Brabant-Zeeland and Studio Sociale Centraal investigated how the value of confiscated illicit goods can be invested in society. How do the participants look back on the creation of the Witte Was installation, and what is still in the pipeline for this project?

Embassy of Safety

“As a government, we want to show that crime does not pay,” says Eric van den Bogaard, the province’s Safe and Resilient Brabant project leader. “As programme partners of the Embassy of Safety, we were curious how we can use the power of designers against undermining crime.” They introduced the Embassy Lab Cashback with substantive partner Taskforce-RIEC Brabant-Zeeland. This platform organisation unites municipalities, the Public Prosecution Service, the police, the Tax and Customs Administration and Customs.

Witte Was

After a pitch, the design agency Studio Sociale Centraal was allowed to work on a concept for this issue. “What if you invest confiscated assets in a way that undermines crime itself? By investing in a football pitch, for example, you help keep young people off the street and on the right path,” says Joes Janmaat, social designer at Studio Sociale Centraal. “During Dutch Design Week 2022, we experimented with this idea of confiscating and giving back locally in our installation Witte Was® – Criminally Good!” 

Social Bid

But who decides what the confiscated assets are ultimately spent on? Van den Bogaard explains, “In the installation hung a Witte Was collection, consisting of symbolically confiscated goods. Signs informed visitors about the origin of the items. They could then immediately make a social bid: a nomination of an organisation, place or person that could use the money.” Janmaat says, “Later that week, during the Embassy of Safety conference, we auctioned some goods against live bids. The social bid that received the loudest applause won the auction.”


After Dutch Design Week, Witte Was travelled on to the Brabant provincial house and the Ministry of Justice and Security. Janmaat says, “The installation helps to start a conversation about the issue of returning confiscated items among policymakers. We are currently exploring how an actual experiment with confiscation and return can take shape with the Public Prosecution Service.” The social reallocation of criminal assets is a topical theme. In February 2023, Minister of Justice Dilan Yeşilgöz announced that she wants to draw up rules that make it easier to invest confiscated assets in the quality of life of neighbourhoods that suffer from crime.


Now that there are plans for the further development of the concept, the question arises of who is responsible for the assignment and ownership. Van den Bogaard says, “The province of North Brabant has a complementary role in terms of safety and resilience. We can put things on the agenda, encourage and stimulate discussion, but the ultimate responsibility lies with municipalities and the police.” Janmaat says, “This division of roles makes it difficult for us: we have entered a process in which the decision-making authority does not lie with the client. Then it is difficult to make an impact with your concept.”


There are also some snags regarding the practicality of giving back. Van den Bogaard explains, “Large criminal cases often have a long and tough trial. It can take up to seven years before the court reaches a decision on an appeal and the confiscated assets are released. Laptops will be hopelessly outdated by then and worth little.” Nevertheless, Janmaat also sees the added value of giving back: “It may be cheaper to destroy things, but other things of value are involved. Showing that you are a decisive and effective government is where they’ll find opportunities.”

The Power of Connection

Despite the obstacles, both parties reflect positively on their Embassy Lab participation. Janmaat says, “As an agency, we are normally always our own Lab Manager, and we arrange the process ourselves. Now, however, we ended up in a ready-made situation. I would advise other designers to use the large network that the Dutch Design Foundation offers you. That connection was extremely valuable for our project.”


The Province of North Brabant experienced fragmented working methods and contact within the Embassy Lab. Van den Bogaard says, “We dealt with many different people and parties: Dutch Design Foundation, Embassy Lab, What if Lab, Dutch Design Week. We occasionally had to figure out who was doing what. But: at the bottom of the line, the collaboration with designers has offered us many new insights.”



Lessons learned


When responsibility for the further development of the concept does not entirely rest with the client, it is difficult for both the designer and client to take the project forward.


Dutch Design Foundation’s large network enables participants to get in touch with relevant parties where they would normally not get a foot in the door.


Due to a multitude of labels and contacts, Embassy Lab participants are sometimes not entirely clear who they can turn to for what.

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