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Norway’s Challenge

The 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City killed 168 people and injured hundreds more. The response to this tragedy was typically American: calls for vengeance against the perpetrators and political posturing by government leaders resulting in passage of draconian laws that restrict rights but do nothing to prevent future violence.

Timothy McVeigh, the man who detonated the bomb, was executed in 2001. His accomplice, Terry Nichols, was sentenced to life. As a direct result of the bombing, Congress overwhelmingly passed and then-President Clinton signed into law the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which amended the federal habeas corpus statute to place onerous provisions on criminal defendants and greatly circumscribe their ability to obtain relief in federal court.

The United States is the only western country that still uses the death penalty, and last year together with China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen, carried out the most executions. With over two million people in prison, we have the highest incarceration rate in the world. Attempts to explore the root causes of crime are dismissed as bleeding-heart approaches, and resources for drug rehabilitation, mental health services and vocational training are severely limited.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s initial response to the twin attacks that left 76 people dead was to de-politicize the tragedy and call for more democracy, more tolerance, and help for the survivors and victims’ families: “We meet terror and violence with more democracy and will continue to fight against intolerance,” he said. In response, tens of thousands of Norwegians lay thousands of flowers around the capital.

Norway’s criminal justice system couldn’t be more different than ours. There is no death penalty and no life sentences. The focus is on rehabilitation not retribution. Hedda Giertsen, a professor in criminology at the University of Oslo, explains that they put a lot of resources into this: “The idea is for people to be able to leave prison and lead a life free from crime. There is help to find accommodation, help with personal finances, education – nearly half of Norway’s prison population is offered some sort of course or education.”

Anders Breivik has been charged with acts of terrorism, which carry a maximum sentence of 30 years. While this relatively lenient sentence for such horrific acts has been met in the U.S. with disdain and disbelief, Norwegians, by and large, are not demanding harsher laws or any change in their country’s approach to criminal justice. The BBC reports that while many wish that Breivik would spend his life in prison, “there have been few calls for adapting Norway’s criminal justice system to make it easier to sentence someone to life in prison in cases of extreme terror.” Typical was Geir Ruud, the Norwegian editor of a Danish newspaper, who was quoted in the Daily Beast: “Even if a lot of people think 21 years is too little, in Scandinavian countries it’s deeply ingrained that criminals should have a second chance in society. These are the values all those kids who were killed believed in, and the values Breivik fought against. If we let his crime change our societies, then he will have won.”

And it works. Norway has a 20 percent recidivism rate for convicts who serve time in prison, compared to nearly 60 percent in America. Their incarceration rate is less than a tenth of ours. The murder rate in Norway is one of the lowest in the world, 0.6 intentional murders per 100,000, compared to 5 per 100,000 in the U.S. 

It isn’t Norway that needs to re-think their criminal justice system, it is us.

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  • Chris

    Norway does have a “life sentence”, if needed, specificially for such cases. It’s called “forvaring” (protective custody). It’s unlimited but must be evaluated every 5 years.

    P.S. The 20% recidivism is the general figure for the whole country, for some prisons it’s just 15%.

  • Max

    Comparing Norway to the US is apples to oranges, so there is no way to draw any conclusions about their justice system versus ours. Give Norway the same population, diversity, and all the racial/ethnic/religious/socioeconomic tension that goes with such numbers and diversity, and then see how their justice system compares to ours.