Center for Global Dialogue

Continue The Conversation Blog

Continue The Conversation

Part I: Incarceration in Scandinavia

Scandinavia is not crime free!  The common denominator for all human societies is that some people violate social norms designed to protect the majority, and each society determines some level of punishment for those who choose to break the law.  The goal of such a punitive system is to change the behavior of the offender so as to prevent a repeat performance and to deter others from committing crime.  Scandinavia’s approach to incarceration is seen by many as outperforming the global trend, including that found in the US, leading the obvious question:  how do they do that?

For openers, the Scandinavian approach includes a prison systems operating with both “open” and a “closed” prisons.  The general difference is that most offenders, judged to less violent, are housed in an open prison.

As an educator, my reason for looking at this should be clear:  California's rate of recidivism is in the vicinity of 70%.  That is, about 70% of those set free after serving their sentences return to prison within the first 3 years after release.  The cost per inmate is estimated to be around $95,000.  To me, this is a very expensive revolving door, the cost of which impacts virtually every other aspect public service ranging from highway construction to public education.  That the cost per recidivist is greater than the tuition charged by top-flight American universities is not lost on me!

Our Center for Global Dialogue, joined by the American Scandinavian Foundation of Santa Barbara wondered if there might not be something we could learn from the Scandinavian experience, so in February 2017, we began our study with a community presentation entitled:

The High Cost of Incarceration: Scandinavian Alternatives

The preliminary findings of that program were so encouraging that we decided to dig into this topic a little deeper.  My research began with a series of writings on the topic, primarily from Norway and Denmark.

I was particularly struck by a report generated by the Norwegian Ministry of Justice submitted to Norway’s parliament, The Storting, that sought to explain and justify their approach to incarceration.  Theirs was an appeal based on the principle of "punishment that works" -- a highly pragmatic view about what they are doing and why.

They are committed to specific principles about how to deal with inmates.  They must be humane and conform to basic standards of human rights.  Sentences must not be excessive in relation to the crime committed.  Above all, they are committed what they call the principle of normalcy.  That is, they seek to make life inside prison approximate what is going on outside prison, so that when the time comes for release, the shock encountered by the difference is reduced sop as not contribute to a return visit.  

The report stresses that punishment is defined as the absence of liberty for a specified period of time.  In their view, the addition of harsh conditions only contributes to a continued alienation from society and the tendency to re-offend.  The deprivation of liberty should be sufficient and provide a time when the inmate can be subjected to serious efforts at rehabilitation.  Hence, conditions within the prison are not harsh, often leading to external criticism prison conditions are overly comfortable.

The report conclude with the "why?" of this approach:  their goal of public safety  is best served if recidivism is reduced.  Giving prisoners “what they deserve” and other forms of retribution are strictly secondary to this overarching goal.

It is really that simple.  It is not actually about the inmate; it is about how to make society a more crime-free environment.  They have concluded that an investment in providing “appropriate conditions” is sound, and they point to Norway’s  recidivism rate of 20%, the lowest in the world, as evidence that their pragmatic approach works.


This is part of a series of 4 articles is written by Peter Haslund, President of our Center.  He recently traveled to Denmark in order to conduct original research into the Scandinavian approach to incarceration.  He visited one of Denmark’s largest “Open” Prisons, spoke with guards and inmates alike, and had a conversation with William Rentzmann, who developed this Danish model.  Dr. Haslund serves on the Board of Trustees for Santa Barbara City College.

Cyndi Burt