Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Norway's "Soft on Crime" Policies

We're about two weeks removed from Anders Breivik's shocking wave of violence in Norway. Understandably, public discourse surrounding the bombing in Oslo and mass shooting at a Labor Party youth camp has been widespread and diverse. Many have speculated that Breivik's massacre--executed in pursuance of an extreme right-wing, Christian fundamentalist, anti-Islamic agenda--is symptomatic of a broader rise of nationalist right in Europe. Others, incredulously, have used the mass killings as an opportunity to advance precisely the kinds of xenophobic nonsense that motivated Breivik on his rampage.

Of interest to readers of this blog will be another trajectory of thought; several news outlets have suggested that Breivik's horrific crimes will prompt Norway to reappraise its "tolerant" criminal justice system. Norway, unlike the United States, approaches crime with an emphasis on rehabilitation (a concept the U.S. has all but abandoned in its prisons). The nation's facilities generally have no bars on their windows, resemble college dormitories more than traditional prisons, and are staffed by well-trained individuals responsible not just for keeping order, but for fostering productive relationships with the incarcerated. Indeed, this is the polar opposite of a culture reared on America's Most Wanted, Willie Horton, and other spectacular "tough on crime" discourses. Furthermore, a "life" sentence in Norway is, on average, 21 years; meaning Breivik will almost certainly not die in prison.

Few honest observers would argue that the American model is superior to Norways. While the U.S. rate of recidivism, or repeat offenses, falls somewhere between 50 and 60 percent, Norway's is a mere 20 percent. Nordic crime rates, though increasing in recent years, remain much lower than ours.

Nonetheless, western media outlets appear to be turning Norway's tragedy back on itself; surely, a nation that treats its criminals so leniently will take a second look at their policies in the wake of the horrors of July 22. One can only hope that Norway's own grace under tragedy, manifested in its leaders' and publics' determination to uphold their tradition of law and order, might function as an object lesson for a nation whose staggering prison population (the largest in the world) has resulted in prison system at war with itself.