Norway – perfect criminal justice?

“Norway is not only known for its beautiful fjords and mountains, it is also known for its progressive criminal justice system with somewhat luxurious facilities and accommodations, low incarceration rates, and low recidivism rates” (Linn Chloe Hagstrøm)

What are the merits of the Norwegian policy towards people convicted of breaking the criminal law? Are there any shortcomings? And could such a policy work elsewhere? This brief paper highlights some issues which need to be considered in addressing these questions.

The Norwegian policy towards criminal lawbreakers

Two features of the Norwegian policy have been highlighted. One is relatively low rates of imprisonment. The other is its prison conditions.

Imprisonment rates

In thinking about imprisonment rates, it is common to use the ‘prison population rate’, i.e. the number of people incarcerated in prison per 100,000 of the country’s inhabitants. According the World Prison Brief data,2 Norway’s imprisonment rate is currently 74 per 100,000. This is often compared favourably with the United States, where the rate is 666. The difference is quite dramatic. But, it must be emphasised that the United States is an obvious ‘outlier’: it currently has the second highest imprisonment rate in the world (only the Seychelles, with a rate of 738 is higher) and has the highest prison population total (2,145,100 people imprisoned). If we focus on rates in Europe, we find that there is a big divide between eastern European countries plus Turkey and western European countries. So, the Russian Federation – which has the highest rate in Europe – again compares fairly dramatically with Norway (its rate is 419). But, if we focus on western Europe, and discount small-sized outliers such as Gibraltar and Guernsey, the comparisons become far less dramatic. Here, Norwegian rates are still very low compared with England and Wales (143), Portugal (132) and Spain (128). However, for many other countries the comparisons are far less dramatic: e.g. Switzerland (82), and Germany (77). Also, it is worth noting that Norway compares unfavourably with the Netherlands (59) and other Nordic/Scandinavian countries – Denmark (59), Sweden (57) and Finland (57).


Prison conditions

Some reported distinctive features of Norwegian prisons are:

  • life in prison approximates life on the outside as far as possible;
  • there are a large number of small prisons;
  • these are usually located close to the homes of the prisoners;
  • social distance within the prisons is short (e.g. prisoners and guards share a canteen, prisoners are involved in decision-making);
  • prison officers are well educated and highly trained – prison work is an attractive career;
  • more generally, criminal lawbreakers tend to be regarded and treated as ‘welfare clients’ rather than ‘dangerous others’.

Note, however, that some Nordik-based criminologists contest the idea that Nordik countries are exceptionally humane in their prison policy.

More generally, what attracts those interested in a more progressive and humane penal policy to the Norwegian system is that it appear to be based on a different philosophy to that of ‘punitive segregation’ which has become so dominant elsewhere in recent decades. The philosophy underlying the Norwegian system might be characterised as one of ‘reintegrative punishment’. The following table summarises some key differences between the two ideas.


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Penal policy and recidivism rates

Of course, many are also attracted to the Norwegian approach because of its reported low rates of reoffending. However, the idea that Norway has exceptionally low recidivism rates has been questioned by the statisticians Andersen and Skardhamer.5 In brief, they suggest that it is possible, depending on concepts and methods employed, to come up with 36 different recidivism rates for Norway, all of which can be deemed relevant and accurate. This gives commentators scope to pick a number that supports whatever case they are trying to make. Those who wish to argue that Norway has exceptionally low recidivism rates tend to go for the lower numbers. However, there are other, equally valid, figures which would debunk their claims.

Moreover, even if we accept claims about low recidivism rates in Norway, it cannot be assumed that this is due to the Norwegian policy towards criminal lawbreakers. The causes of crime in general, and recidivism in particular, are complex and varied.6 Whilst those who imagine that a strategy of punitive segregation will protect us from criminals and crime are no doubt mistaken, it is just as simplistic to imagine that a strategy of reintegrative punishment, on its own, will dramatically affect recidivism rates.


Evaluating policies towards criminal lawbreakers

A ‘perfect society’ will be a low-crime society, but it is unrealistic to expect it to be a crime-free society. Hence, there will be a need to respond to criminal wrongdoing and so a need to decide what policy to adopt towards criminal lawbreakers.

Clearly, in choosing rationally between one policy or another, we will want to know about and take into consideration the effectiveness of the policy in improving the future behaviour of criminal lawbreakers. If a particular policy results in low rates of reoffending, that is a significant reason in favour of adopting it. However, other factors need to be considered, such as the financial and human costs of the policy and whether it satisfies the needs for justice that criminal wrongdoing generates.

Moreover, even if we focus mainly on preventing reoffending, societies have devised different strategies for this and – as indicated above – there is unlikely to be conclusive evidence about which is more effective. Hence, there are strategies which encourage reflection, repentance and a resolve to do better in the future and which provide support and intervention required to ensure that those who resolve to do better keep to that resolve. And, there are strategies which seek to demonstrate that any pleasure or profit obtained by criminal wrongdoing will be outweighed by the pain – including humiliation and stigma - that will follow it. Advocates and adherents to each of these opposed strategies are likely to claim, and firmly believe, that their strategy is most effective; and that the alterative will make things worse. But, whilst empirical evidence can provide knowledge which is useful in thinking about the pros and cons of alternative strategies, it cannot resolve these disputes. Deciding on a policy towards criminal lawbreakers is ultimately a moral and social rather than a purely technical decision.

Accordingly, in deciding whether the ‘perfect society’ will prefer a policy of ‘reintegrative punishment’, as has Norway, or one of ‘punitive segregation’, the key question is which accords best with the social ideals of a perfect society. We need to think first about what sort of social ideals and values we imagine a perfect society will embody. If, for us, a perfect society is one which has ‘zero tolerance’ for wrongdoers, is hostile towards those who hurt us, seeks to erect permanent barriers between those who have broken the criminal law and those who adhere to its rules, and which is concerned to express its disgust and hatred towards those who hurt us in its words and actions, then the policy towards criminal lawbreakers in a perfect society will be one of punitive segregation. If, on the other hand, we find that notion of a perfect society repellent – if we prefer a society which is more tolerant, forgiving, slow to condemn, and always seeking to build bridges rather than walls between people - we will be attracted towards Norway’s policy of reintegrative punishment. If so, we should make it clear that this choice is motivated primarily by our social ideals, rather than by shakier claims about such a policy being more effective at reducing recidivism.

Gerry Johnstone (Professor of Law, Institute of Applied Ethics, University of Hull)