Prison’s Purpose: Comparing the Nordic and U.S. Correctional Approaches

I delivered this talk at the Wisconsin Sociological Association Meetings, held in Kenosha, Wisconsin, October 25, 2019.

I am conducting a crossnational comparative study of the character and efficacy of various correctional approaches in the reduction of criminal recidivism for a range of purposes: providing scholars and practitioners with detailed and focused knowledge on advancements in penology; developing programs for students studying and preparing for careers in the fields of criminology and criminal justice administration; making available to the public sound information and methods appropriate to the development and implementation of policies conducive to building inclusive, safe, and just communities.

The project arose in an examination of comparative statistics in corrections and recidivism for the United States, Sweden, and Norway. Presently, the US incarcerates more persons than any other country and has the highest incarceration rate in the world. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the total adult correctional population of the United States is nearly seven million persons, with approximately 2.3 million persons in state and federal prisons, jails, and juvenile correctional facilities. The incarceration rate is 698 per 100,000 residents. The US carceral system is also notable for significant class, ethnic, and racial disparities. 

The United States has a poor record of rehabilitating those it incarcerates. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, recent data show that 68 percent of those released from prison were rearrested within three years of their release. This measure of recidivism is a rough but useful indicator of the problem of reoffending after leaving custodial supervision. The United States is well-known among advanced democracies for its punitive approach to corrections, policies guided by deterrence theory. The typical punishment regime in the United States emphasizes harsh and degrading conditions. These conditions in part explain the United States’ high rate of recidivism. 

During approximately the same period, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, inmates in Swedish correctional facilities in 2016 numbered around 5,979 in 46 prisons and 33 jails. Recidivism rates, at around 40 percent within three years, are lower in Sweden than in the United States. Prison population in Norway in 2017 stood at 3,373 in 64 prisons. Evidence presented by the Norwegian government indicates that only 20 percent prisoners in Norway are recidivists. 

As with the United States, with the emergence of globalization, changing labor market needs, and migration pressures, Europe has been growing more diverse over the last several decades. Norway and Sweden have managed to retain comparatively lower recidivism rates despite these changes. These facts are noteworthy given the insecurity migrants face in their host countries and criminogenic pressures inherent in their situation (emergent ethnic enclaves, housing shortages, language deficiencies, low labor force attachment, low wages, neighborhood overcrowding, concentrated poverty and indigency). 

US observers can thus learn a lot from the way in which Scandinavian societies have addressed the problem of rapid social change while at the same time keeping faith with the compassionate and progressive values that lie behind the popular appreciation for comprehensive rehabilitative strategies. A detailed cross-national comparison of correctional statistics and penal models elaborates knowledge of the relative impacts of punitive versus rehabilitative correctional approaches and brings this understanding to students and practitioners in Northeast Wisconsin and beyond. Other states have taken an interest in the model. In October 2015, a delegation from North Dakota and Hawaii, comprised of state officials, conducted a tour of the prison system in Norway. In September 2017, Alaskan officials organized a similar tour of Norway’s facilities. 

The Summer 2018 Research Trip

I traveled to Sweden and Norway in the summer of 2018 to meet with law enforcement officials and determine the feasibility of the project I am discussing and toured facilities and interviewed officials. During my trip, I gained access to educational and correctional institutions in their largest cities of Stockholm and Oslo. My summer trip to Stockholm involved meetings with researchers at the Swedish Prison and Probation Service (SPPS), or Kriminalvården, in Liljeholmen, a district in the Stockholm archipelago. My principle contact was Gustav Tallving, policy officer for the European Organization of Prisons and Correctional Services. In Norway, I traveled to the University College of Norwegian Correctional Service (KRUS), or Kriminalomsorgen, in Lillestrøm, outside of Oslo. My principle contact there was Tore Rokkan, Associate Professor in the Department of Research.

University College of Norwegian Correctional Service (KRUS), Lillestrøm, Norway

The field refers to the Scandinavian approach as the “Nordic model.” The model is focused on preparing inmates for successful reintegration with society after release by focusing on individual variability—or within-subject change—and the needs of people in the greater society. Norway is especially known for an emphasis on restorative justice, an approach that seeks to repair the harm caused by the offense rather than punish the perpetrator. Restorative justice puts victims, offenders, and community members in charge of determining harm done, the needs of those involved, and ways the damage may be repaired. Both Norway and Sweden stress the importance of avoiding isolating prisoners in order to prevent the phenomenon of prisonization, a type of institutionalization that makes it difficult for ex-convicts to transition to life outside of custodial care. 

My summer trip yielded several results. At the Mid-South Sociological Association meetings in Birmingham, Alabama, in October 2018, I presented a working paper, “Approaching the Rehabilitative Ideal: The Structure of Crime Control in Sweden and Norway,” in which I discussed the history of the Nordic model with respect to crime and punishment and recidivism rates. At the Midwest Sociological Society meetings in Chicago, Illinois, this past April, I presented a paper titled “Foreign Bodies and the Queue: Shifting Priorities in the Norwegian Correctional System,” that analyzes changes in that system in light of shifts in political hegemony and mass migration. 

Me art the Department of Sociology and Work Science at the University of Göteborg

In November 2018, I was invited by Mark Elam, professor in the Department of Sociology and Work Science, to come to the University of Göteborg for my sabbatical semester. They will host my visit and provide me with office space. I received assurances that, when an exchange is worked out with the International Center, the sociology department will support an exchange agreement. In June 2019, I was awarded a sabbatical for fall 2020 to travel to Sweden and Norway to continue my research research. 

Theory, Practice, and Education

My interests in this topic are theoretical, practical, and pedagogical. On the theoretical front, I am evaluating the empirical soundness of the social support thesis with respect to rehabilitation and recidivism. Social support is an approach developed by Mark Colvin and associates. The differences between the Nordic and US approaches to punishment and rehabilitation provide a useful test of this thesis. 

I graduated from the University of Tennessee with a Ph.D. in Sociology in 2000, with emphases in Criminology and Political Economy. My dissertation was a comprehensive study of the history of crime and punishment in the United States titled, Caste, Class, and Justice: Segregation, Accumulation, and Criminalization in the United States. I have published articles on the subject of crime and punishment in the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & TraumaJournal of PovertyJournal of Black Studies,Crime, Law, & Social Change, the Encyclopedia of US Prisons and Correctional Facilities, and the Encyclopedia of Social Deviance, as well as presented papers at numerous conferences and symposia. The Nordic project is a continuation of my varied work in this broad area.

On the practical front, I am endeavoring to provide policymakers with alternative correctional approaches that utilize social supports to reduce recidivism. This interest bears on the situation in the state of Wisconsin. Its prison population tripling since 1990, Wisconsin is studying ways to curb prison overcrowding. Wisconsin’s prisons were built to hold approximately 16,000 inmates but hold around 23,000. Wisconsin is on track to hold a record number of inmates by 2019. A chief driver of the large prison population is the high rate of recidivism. One approach to the problem is changing parole violation restrictions and expanding the state’s earned release program. Addressing the problem of crimeless revocation is an essential piece of this. Vital to the success of such reforms is a correctional approach that lessens the coercive character of prison life and provides social supports to prisoners that increase successful reintegration with life beyond prison. 

On the teaching front, this project promises to generate knowledge and foster programming that will benefit students studying and preparing for careers in the fields of criminology and criminal justice administration. It will inform several of the classes I teach. Insights into life-course analysis and within-subject change metrics will introduce students to cutting edge methodologies. Partnership with other programs and with the community in rehabilitative and treatment strategies will provide opportunities for new internship positions.

I am on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies, a problem-focused interdisciplinary program that brings humanistic and social scientific approaches to bear on the social promises and problems that shape the history and trajectory of the United States and the world. Faculty are drawn from the disciplines of history, political science, and sociology, several of them with expertise in matters of criminal justice and legal studies. Our program offers courses in law and society, constitutional law, gender and the law, law and inequality, criminology, and criminal justice administration. My association with the Social Work program, particularly Dr. Doreen Higgins, and that program’s developing relationship with the University of Gothenburg under Higgins’ direction, promise collaboration in research and curricular development across colleges.

Finally, a travel course to Scandinavia, which I am developing with Higgins, will strengthen not only the Democracy and Justice Studies program in criminal justice, but also its relationship with Northeastern Wisconsin Technical College, as well as student exchanges and combined degree options in the fields of criminology and criminal justice. The travel course will take students to Scandinavia to experience these systems and practices firsthand. Hands-on experience is something I have found to be invaluable.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

3 thoughts on “Prison’s Purpose: Comparing the Nordic and U.S. Correctional Approaches”

  1. I am Spanish and graduated in Law and I honestly think that American criminologists have an exaggerated vision of rehabilitation in European prisons. I am greatly interested me in this article No doubt your good faith. But the mistake of advocates for more lenient sentences to criminals is to ignore the experience of other countries in their policies on crime. I am Spanish and graduated in Law and I honestly think that American criminologists have an exaggerated vision of rehabilitation in European prisons. As a relevant example of the application of epidemiological methods in the analysis of recidivism and crime in long-term studies carried out in Sweden, it is worth mentioning the results of a study published in 2013reflecting the analytical power of epidemiological studies applied to thecriminal conduct. It has been possible to identify the fact that a percentage 1% of criminals are responsible for 63.2% of all crimes
    violent convicted over 31 years, between 1973 and 2004, in Sweden (Falket al., 2013)

  2. Portugal, Spain and Norway have softer penal systems in the world, in fact these are the only European Union countries that have no life imprisonment.
    Until 2015 there was no life sentence in Spain. In Spain, the fanaticism of defenders of the rights of criminals is so great life imprisonment that oppose even when there is a possibility of parole. In 1975 the criminal law in Spain professors penal law demanded the abolition of the death penalty and prohibition of all sentences of more than 15 years. But The substance remains the same: Do Not care to kill three to thirty-three or three hundred thirty-three people.

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