The other week I was lucky enough to attend an informative Power Lunch, hosted by the Law Library of Congress and presented by one of our legal analysts, Dr. Wendy Zeldin. Dr. Zeldin (who has a very impressive list of credentials, including a Masters and PhD degree from Harvard University) discussed the Norwegian Criminal Justice system and the massacre that occurred there on July 22, 2011. Dr. Zeldin, who is a co-editor of the Law Library’s flagship publication the Global Legal Monitor, based her presentation on a Current Legal Topic report that is available on our website.
Dr. Zeldin started by stating that the suspect in the massacre, Anders Breivik, confessed to the crimes and that the judge ordered a closed hearing where he sentenced him to eight weeks in jail, with four of these weeks to be spent in solitary confinement. Dr. Zeldin noted that the courts in Norway have a number of avenues for prosecuting the suspect in the massacre, including terrorism provisions of the penal law and the recently enacted provision on crimes against humanity. Dr. Zeldin described these criminal law articles, which are discussed in detail in her report, and noted that an important comparative point between the Scandinavian criminal justice systems and those in the majority of European jurisdictions is that the focus in Norway is restorative justice rather than punitive punishment. This is reflected in part by the relatively short prison sentences that are available. The maximum term of imprisonment is 21 years, with the sole exceptions being the recently enacted crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes provisions. There were new terrorism provisions adopted at the same time but not yet in force also allow for harsher punishment. These offenses permit imprisonment for up to 30 years.
Dr. Zeldin noted that although Norway has relatively limited sentences compared to those in other jurisdictions, they do have a system of preventive detention. This applies where an individual who has been convicted of a crime is still considered to be at a high risk of reoffending may be kept in jail for additional periods of up to 5 years at a time after their original sentence is over.
Dr. Zeldin then spoke about the ramifications in Norway of the bombings, noting that the immediate aftermath saw calls for a security review of Norway’s already stringent gun laws. Other areas of review under consideration are the sentencing system and the criminal laws. As noted above, one emphasis of the presentation was the restorative justice aspect of Norway’s criminal system. Dr. Zeldin presented some pictures of a recently constructed prison that were reminiscent of my university’s student housing (I promise I really did go to a university and did not complete my education behind bars anywhere).
Whilst my first instinct was that it did not seem very prison like, Dr. Zeldin presented some statistics that indicate the approach that Norway has taken is extremely effective at not only rehabilitating offenders and preventing reoffending, but also at deterring criminal behavior. The prison population is 73 prisoners per 100,000 of the population, whereas in the U.S. it is 763 per 100,000 of the population. The recidivism rate in Norway is also relatively low – 20% in Norway, compared with 52% in the U.S. The contrast in these figures is quite striking, and despite the initial shock at what seems to be the near luxury of the most recently built prison, the statistics show that the Norwegian approach is relatively effective. However, we do need to bear in mind that, unlike the U.S., Norway is a small country, with a fairly homogeneous population.