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Post Partisan
Posted at 02:12 PM ET, 07/25/2011

Norway’s gentle justice


The massacre allegedly wrought in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik claimed at least 93 lives in a nation of 4.8 million. That’s the equivalent of 5,950 victims in the United States, nearly double the death toll on September 11, 2001. Norway, accompanied by the world, grieves the victims of this monstrous crime. But can it deliver justice?

As in other European countries, the death penalty does not exist in Norway. Nor does Norway provide for life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The maximum prison time under Norwegian law is 21 years, with the possibility of parole. (There is no provision for consecutive sentences.)

A Norwegian court can, however, order additional detention in five-year increments beyond the 21-year limit, if persuaded that the offender poses a continuing threat to the community.

Such extensions are apparently rare in Norway -- though if anyone seems likely to remain confined indefinitely, it would be Breivik. Nevertheless, the state will bear the burden of periodically arguing for his continued incarceration.

Prison conditions, even for violent offenders, are remarkably comfortable, even gentle. By law, Norway’s murderers start out in high-security prison, but we’re not talking about a U.S.-style “SuperMax”: all inmates retain their right to vote, and at least some high-security prisoners have kitchens and enjoy Internet access. After a time, they must be “assessed with a view to transferring them to a lower level of security.”

The Norwegian Correctional Service’s Website makes no mention of punishment, but does refer to “services” to which inmates are “entitled.”

Norway is perhaps an extreme illustration of a more general European attitude that emphasizes the “human dignity” of the accused – remember French protests against the “perp walk” for Dominique Strauss-Kahn? – and assumes that society shares a bit of responsibility for even the most heinous deeds of individuals.

As one Norwegian warden put it: "The biggest mistake that our societies have made is to believe that you must punish hard to change criminals. This is wrong. The big closed prisons are criminal schools. If you treat people badly, they will behave badly. Anyone can be a citizen if we treat them well, respect them, and give them challenges and demands."

He certainly has a point: in the U.S., some maximum-security prisons are overcrowded breeding grounds for recidivism. In that sense, we could learn a thing or two from Norway.

But does enlightened correctional policy really require letting the likes of Anders Behring Breivik surf the Web?

U.S. authorities do not always assume that the goal of punishment is “to change criminals.” Here, it’s taken for granted that some perpetrators – especially mass murderers -- cannot be rehabilitated, that they forfeit any right to consideration from society, and that they must be isolated, or, in a small minority of cases, destroyed, lest they strike again.  

Norway’s approach to criminal justice reflects 1960s-vintage optimism about society’s ability to modify human nature, combined with the unique conditions of a small, socially homogeneous and geographically remote nation. But a surge in reported crimes in Oslo had made the country’s gentle brand of justice increasingly controversial even before Breivik struck.

In the wake of this tragedy, it will be interesting to see whether Norwegians, and other Europeans, recommit to existing policies -- or reconsider them.

(UPDATE, 3:11 P.M. Norwegian police have revised the death toll — downwards, fortunately. Seventy-six people were killed, the equivalent of 4,800 in the U.S.)

By  |  02:12 PM ET, 07/25/2011

 
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