While America is building new prisons every year, over in Europe, Sweden is actually closing four prisons and a remand center due to a sharp fall in admissions over the past two years. The head of Sweden’s prison services, Nils Öberg sees this as an opportunity and evidence of a successful penal system. Since 2004, prison numbers have been falling about 1% a year, a decline that accelerated to about 6% between 2011 and 2012. How has Sweden managed this?
A focus on rehabilitation
No one is totally sure why Sweden’s prison numbers have gone down, but Nils Öberg believes that the reduction is due, in part, to the country’s cutting edge approach to imprisonment which focuses on rehabilitation and doing more to help inmates become productive members of society. This has resulted in more lenient charges for drug offenses following a 2011 Supreme Court decision and more options for judges in sentencing criminals to rehab or probation rather than prison.
Changing laws, changing sentences
A Stockholm Criminology professor, Hanns von Hofer, points out that between 2004 and 2012, there was a 36% drop in the prison population related to theft, 25% for drugs, and 12% for violent crimes, due to a policy shift toward emphasis on probationary sentences instead of prison.
While this policy is now official in Sweden, the government there is keeping the option to reopen two of their inactive facilities in the future if prison numbers start to climb. Though the law has been fundamentally changed, and Nils Öberg hopes rehabilitation will drastically reduce recidivism, officials there are not assuming that the downard trend will last forever.
How does Sweden compare to other countries?
The five countries with the highest number of prisoners, relative to their populations, are the United States, China, Russia, Brazil, and India. In the US, about 716 out of 100,000 people are in prison. In China, this number is about 121, Russia 475, Brazil with about 274, and India with only 30 inmates per 100,000 citizens. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the countries of Malta, Equatorial Guiena, Luxembourg, and Djibouti. Sweden doesn’t have the lowest prison population in the world, but currently rank 112th. As the 2011 Supreme Court decision plays out, and as Nils Öberg’s rehabilitation strategies continue to reduce recidivism, Sweden may expect to claim that title.
What should the U.S. take away from this?
While there are many different factors at play, this downward trend shows us that it is possible to make a change in prison populations. It also suggests that perhaps instead of focusing on locking individuals up, then releasing them with no skills or resources to re-integrate into society, we should be focusing on giving ex convicts the skills to climb out of the pattern of crime.