The difference between American and Norwegian approaches to justice has gotten some attention in the wake of last Friday’s tragic attacks in Oslo and Utøya. Some Americans feel that Norway’s system of justice is too lenient for Anders Behring Breivik, the right-wing nutcase who has taken responsibility for the bombing and shootings that left 76 dead.

It’s easy to see why people might think that. Norwegian prisons more closely resemble a college dorm than the stark, over-crowded facilities that characterize the American system. The maximum sentence Breivik can receive is 21 years, though that can be renewed in 5-year increments. (For more, see here and here.) So if you have a gut sense that terrible crimes deserve terrible punishments in order to deter future crimes, then you’re not totally off-base to be offended by Norway’s system.

But here are a few thoughts in response.

To start with, the society-wide outcomes matter more than how a particular instance makes you feel. The numbers don’t lie: Norway’s incarceration rate is 73 per 100,000 people — while the US rate is 743 per 100,000 (we’re #1!). Their recidivism rate appears to be much lower as well, though I’m having trouble finding a reputable source (see here or here for un-sourced stats from others). So if we were to compare the two justice systems, I’d have to come down on Norway’s side.

Following that line of thinking, America needs to worry less about Norway’s justice system and start having a serious discussion about our own. Our public discourse focuses on protecting the innocent and deterring crime, but we need an approach to justice that is much more holistic. We do long-term damage to individuals and families by mishandling minor offenders, placing them on a life track where they have few options other than continued criminal activity. We should be investing as much to keep people out of prison as we do to keep them in. I keep hoping that some brave, savvy politician will figure out how to approach this issue in a way that doesn’t get her/him labelled as “soft on crime”. Reform is desperately needed.

For more on the same topic, see the Economist‘s Democracy in America blog.


Another issues that has had American pundits in a tizzy over the past week: Breivik’s religious beliefs. For background and satiric responses, I recommend checking out the Colbert Report and the Daily Show.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Norwegian Muslish Gunman’s Islam-Esque Atrocity
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive


The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
In the Name of the Fodder
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

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