The first country I’ll be examining in this blog is Norway. Norway is known around the world for having, in the words of TIME Magazine, “the world’s most humane prisons.” As its system is focused on rehabilitation, Norway has no death penalty, the maximum sentence a prisoner can get is 21 years, and the prison conditions are far nicer than what an American might expect from a prison. However, this system was called into question in 2011, as many people believed that Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in the deadliest terrorist attack in Norwegian history, deserved far worse than that. So how does this justice system compare to that of the United States, and how does it reflect Norwegian ideals of justice?
To better understand the Norwegian criminal justice system, let’s first look at the police force. Police in Norway are educated and trained at the Norwegian Police University College. In 2005, 2,265 people applied for admission to the school, and 360 were admitted. The university college offers a 3-year training/education program aimed at “providing a broad practical and theoretical background.” They are then required to participate in 80 hours of training annually. Police also do not normally carry guns while on patrol, but instead have them locked down in their vehicles, and must receive permission to unlock and use them. In all of 2014, there were only 2 instances of police officers firing their weapons in the line of duty, and neither shot killed or injured the target. In fact, over the past 12 years, Norwegian police have shot and killed only 2 people.
The Norwegian justice system is built on “restorative justice.” It promotes healing for not only the victims and society, but the criminal as well. This healing begins at the trial, where victims are given a direct voice, and so are given a space where they can begin to heal and confront the person who wronged them in some way. The fact that the victims are given such a large voice in the trial means that the defendants have no choice but to see the people they hurt, and hopefully begin the process of accepting the guilt for their crimes. Like in the U.S., court-appointed lawyers are available in Norway for those who need them, including the victims, for whom 174 lawyers were appointed in the trial of Anders Breivik.
Norwegian prisons look very different from those in the United States. While in the U.S., a prisoner might have a small cell, and maybe even a cellmate, Norwegian prisoners are given 3-room cells, with laptops, and sometimes even televisions. Norwegian prisoners are also given much more freedom. They can play games, ride bicycles and horses, and pick up new hobbies. The idea behind this is that all Norwegian prisoners will be released one day, so they should be prepared for returning to the outside world and rejoining society. They want prisoners to come to terms with the fact that what they did was wrong, and the relatively comfortable conditions are meant to help prepare them for that.
This Norwegian method seems to work too. Norway has 73 prisoners per 100,000 people, compared to 763 in the U.S.. Their recidivism rate is about 20%, compared to 50-60% in the U.S.. The biggest criticism of Norway’s criminal justice system is that the punishments don’t always seem to fit the crime. 21 years spent in a 3-room cell seems like an unreasonably light sentence for a mass murderer like Breivik, but that’s sort of the point. Norwegians rejoiced when they heard of Breivik’s 21-year sentence, because that sentence will allow for the healing of the victims, the country, and Breivik himself. It should also be noted that while the maximum sentence that can be given to a prisoner is 21 years, sentences can be extended indefinitely if the court believes that the prisoner is not yet fully rehabilitated and still represents a danger to society.
In contrast to restorative justice, the United States employs retributive justice. This means that we focus primarily on punishing criminals, and matching the punishment to the crime. We do have some rehabilitative programs, but they take a back seat. Our retributive justice results in us sending people to prison for long periods of time, only for them to end up right back in because they are no longer sure how to live outside the walls. Norway’s differing police system also seems to have an effect. The extremely competitive training program ensures that only those best suited to the job get it, they must be doing something right, because the United States has had hundreds of incidents of police officers shooting and killing people in this year alone, compared to Norway’s 2 in the past 12 years. I think that it’s pretty clear that the United States has a lot it can learn from Norway about ideas of justice, the treatment of prisoners, and approaches towards law enforcement.