Restorative Justice Systems Have Lower Recidivism Rates

Demeter Delune

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Interior of Halden Prison in NorwayWikimedia Commons

If you don’t live in a certain country, knowing about its prison system isn’t something you may think about. A TikTok user posted a video back in 2019 that prompted discussion. Once you see the statistics, you’ll understand why what Norway is doing works. In the U.S., as of 2021, the rate of incarceration is 639 people per 100,000. In Norway, as of 2021, it’s 49 people per 100,000. While it’s true Norway has a much smaller overall population, the fact remains, they don’t incarcerate people at the same rate as we do in the United States.

But what’s more important is the recidivism rate — the rate at which inmates reoffend. In the U.S., it’s 60–70 percent after five years, whereas in Norway it’s down to 20 percent after 5 years. Since the point of prison is supposed to be rehabilitation, which would include not reoffending, it’s clear that Norway has the right idea.

So, what are the big differences in the incarceration systems of these two countries?

The average sentence in Norway is eight months, and the maximum is 21 years, which can be renewed indefinitely by five years at a time. In the U.S., the average sentence is 27 months. Incarceration rates increased sharply in the 70s to 90s due to a crackdown on drugs and crime which was directly and purposefully targeted towards communities of color, especially black communities. In the U.S., more people are sentenced for drug possession than for any other crime and can be sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for trace amounts of a drug.

There is cost to account for, and running a prison like Halden isn’t cheap. It spends about $93,000 on each prisoner per year, compared to $30,000 in the U.S.. However, if the U.S. incarcerated its prisoners at the same rate as Norway, it could spend the same amount per inmate as Norway and still save billions of dollars per year.

But how could the US system feasibly do this? The answer lies in decreasing the length of sentences and turning the system away from punishment and towards rehabilitation. In Norway, there’s proof that moving away from punishment to rehabilitation reduces the number of prisoners within the system. They’ve also proven that programs such as education, job training, and ensuring jobs and housing after release are working. Norway had a higher recidivism rate than the US, before they switched to this model in the 90s.

So it’s clear, something is working.

The governor of the Halden prison, states, “In Norway, the punishment is just to take away someone’s liberty. The other rights stay. Prisoners can vote, they can have access to school, to health care; they have the same rights as any Norwegian citizen. Because inmates are human beings. They have done wrong, they must be punished, but they are still human beings. We are releasing your neighbor. . . . If we treat inmates like animals in prison, then we will release animals on to your street.”

The Halden prison architect, Gudrun Molden, explains, “The sentence is taking away the freedom .Everyday life shouldn’t be the sentence.”

Reducing the population of prisoners that are reincarcerated means more individuals are able to contribute to Norway’s economy once their sentence is complete. Among the prison population that was unemployed prior to being arrested, there was a 34% increase in this group partaking in job training courses and a 40% increase in employment rates. Norway’s prison system equips its prisoners with education-based knowledge and labor skills that have long-term benefits to its country’s economy and also improves their personal lives.

One mission that is consistent throughout all of Norway’s facilities is the rehabilitation and reintegration of its prisoners into society. These prisons’ accepting, caring and empathetic approach has paved the way for many prisoners into becoming fine citizens supporting their country’s economy. It’s what we should want here in the U.S. as well.

The National Academies of Science reports:

  • With the inclusion of local jails, the U.S. penal population totals 2.2 million adults, the largest in the world; the U.S. has nearly one-quarter of the world’s prisoners, but only 5 percent of its population.
  • Nearly 1 in 100 adults is in prison or jail, which is 5 to 10 times higher than rates in Western Europe and other democracies.
  • Of those incarcerated in 2011, about 60 percent were black or Hispanic.
  • Black men under age 35 who did not finish high school are more likely to be behind bars than employed in the labor market.
  • In 2009, 62 percent of black children 17 or younger whose parents had not completed high school had experienced a parent being sent to prison, compared with 17 percent for Hispanic children and 15 percent for white children with similarly educated parents.

Something has to change within the United States penal system. If we take notes from European countries that have introduced a restorative justice system, we can change the statistics in our country as well. But it’s a matter of changing the minds of society and lawmakers and getting them to understand what we’re doing now, isn’t working.

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