What is restorative justice?

Photo: Trond Isaksen / Statsbygg Artwork at Halden Prison.

Photo: Trond Isaksen / Statsbygg
Artwork at Halden Prison.

Linn Chloe Hagstrøm
The Norwegian American

Norway is not only known for its beautiful fjords and mountains, it is also known for its progressive criminal justice system with somewhat luxurious facilities and accommodations, low incarceration rates, and low recidivism rates. This success is largely attributed to the idea of restorative justice. But what does this mean in practice?

A restorative criminal justice system focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large. This forms the base of the Norwegian criminal justice system. Norwegians view their penal system in terms of rehabilitation (rather than retribution), following the notion that the closer you are to the society you are going back to, the less challenging it will be to re-integrate upon release.

Clearly, the Norwegian system is quite different from the way things work in the U.S. The American justice system is built on the concept of retributive justice, which is a system of criminal justice based on the punishment of offenders. This means that those who commit wrongful acts or serious crimes against society should receive a proportionate punishment. Of course, the American system also incorporates other ideas such as “incapacitating a criminal from committing other crimes, rehabilitating criminals to rejoin society, and deterring other potential criminals.” This form of justice rests on the foundation of enforcing the rule of law and concepts of what is deemed fair and moral. “Justice is treated as valuable and important in itself, not just for its deterrence or incapacitative effects. In a retributive system, the punishment fits the crime” (The Atlantic).

In Norway, the level of crime is relatively low when compared to the U.S., The Bureau of Diplomatic Security (OSAC) reported. The number of people spending time in prison is also low with 3,679 people in prison as of January 1, 2016, or 70 people in prison per 100,000. In 2014, the U.S. had 2,217,947, or 693 people in prison per 100,000, which is the highest rank in the world. Another difference between Norway and the U.S. lies in the rates of recidivism, where Norway comes out on top with a 20% recidivism rate. Earlier this year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) came out with a comprehensive study stating that of the U.S. offenders released in 2005, 49.3% were rearrested within the follow-up period of eight years. In a jaw-dropping comparison, offenders released from U.S. state prison in 2005 had a 76.6% recidivism rate where re-arrest took place within five years (USSC). Why is there such a stark difference between recidivism rates in Norway and the U.S.? This has a lot to do with Norway’s comprehensive restorative justice system.

In southeastern Norway lies Halden prison, a facility consisting of 75 acres built in 2010. Halden prison has jogging trails, a sound studio, and a system made to prepare inmates for reintegration. This facility attempts to give prisoners an everyday life that is as close to life on the outside as possible, which includes different programs of vocational training such as assembly workshops, woodworking, cooking classes, and recording music. There are no bars covering windows, the kitchens are fully equipped (including sharp objects), and guards and inmates may be friends.

Another prison following a similar style is Bastøy prison, the largest low-security prison in Norway. At Bastøy, inmates have to take responsibility for their own lives. “There are plenty of opportunities and this is a great place for those who are interested in serving time in a meaningful way,” said Tor Arne Bårnes, the deputy head of the prison. All inmates have work duty from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on weekdays, but when they are not working in the kitchens, the shop, or in maritime, agriculture, or technical positions, they have access to beaches, a library, a soccer field, or other recreation. Prisoners have freedoms as long as they act responsibly.

In Norway’s restorative approach, removing someone’s liberty is punishment enough, which is evident when looking at Norwegian sentencing. Over 89% of Norwegian jail sentences are shorter than a year. Comparatively, “in U.S. federal prisons, longer sentences are much more common, with fewer than 2% serving a year or less, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons” (CNN). The maximum sentence a person can get in Norway is 21 years with the exception of genocide and war crimes, in which case one can be sentenced to a maximum of 30 years. Previously, lifetime sentences were used for grave crimes such as rape, murder, and treason, but these were abolished in 1981. However, if there is a clear risk for recurrence in a serious criminal case, an indefinite sentence of detention can be imposed every five years.

Prison life in Norway may sound very pleasant and luxurious, yet this is not a product of naïveté. It is meant to prepare inmates for “difficult or painful internal reformation” (The Atlantic). Imprisonment is a way of treating people for the social or psychological issues that led them to commit crimes.

Many have studied the Norwegian system and findings have shown that restorative justice works. Restorative justice systems have been successful in reducing the cost of imprisoning criminals, reducing recidivism rates, and reducing crime. When the point is not to punish, but rather to help a person become a productive and contributing member of society, the Norwegian system is a great example of how restorative justice can be used in practice.

• Bastøy Prison: www.bastoyfengsel.no/English/bastoy-fengsel-Eng.html

• Business Insider: www.businessinsider.com/tour-of-halden-prison-2014-10?op=1

• CNN: www.cnn.com/2012/05/24/world/europe/norway-prison-bastoy-nicest

• Det Store Norske Leksikon: snl.no/livsvarig_fengsel%2F%28livstid%29

• The Atlantic: www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/08/a-different-justice-why-anders-breivik-only-got-21-years-for-killing-77-people/261532

• The Bureau of Diplomatic Security (OSAC): www.osac.gov/Pages/ContentReportDetails.aspx?cid=19044

• TIME: content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1986002,00.html?hpt=T2

• USSC: www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/research-and-publications/research-publications/2016/recidivism_overview.pdf

• World Prison Brief: www.prisonstudies.org/country/norway

• World Prison Brief: www.prisonstudies.org/country/united-states-america

Linn Chloe Hagstrøm is from Bergen, Norway, and recently graduated with a BA from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. She currently resides near Denver, Colo., and spends her time in a non-profit.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 9, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Norwegian American Logo

The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.