Doran Larson is the Walcott-Bartlett professor of literature at Hamilton College, where he directs the American Prison Writing Archive. He is the author of “Witness in the Era of Mass Incarceration: Discovering the Ethical Prison."
But as it makes its way through Sweden’s justice system, there is another aspect of the case that Americans should focus on: the Nordic criminal justice model, and the lessons it has for our own flawed system.
From its founding, the American justice system has been politicized and racialized. Southern police forces can trace their roots to the slave patrols that stalked the roads before the Civil War. The ripples of this brutal history can still be seen in recent incidents of police violence targeting African Americans. And over the past four decades, politicians from both parties, including the now haunted Joe Biden, have blown law-and-order dog-whistles at white voters, calling for more and longer sentences that have multiplied the number of people incarcerated by 500 percent and disproportionately targeted poor urban people of color. As criminologist Michael Tonry explains, “American imprisonment rates did not rise because crime rose. They rose because American politicians wanted them to rise.”
By contrast, Nordic nations place great faith in research-based expertise, which has traditionally restrained the kinds of populist panics that drive bad penal policy. Crime and punishment have been left to professionals who regularly consult with academic researchers. The result is a pragmatic, results-oriented system.
To ensure that their decisions are blind to the social status of suspects, Swedish prosecutors are obligated to bring charges if evidence of an actionable crime becomes apparent, though they can decide not to go to trial. Plea bargaining is not practiced. With no juries to persuade, courtrooms lack our battles over contending claims to justice. Unelected judges and prosecutors — qualified not by votes but by education and training — can sound like social workers seeking what is best for all the principal parties. Incarceration rates are less than one-tenth of those in the United States.
This in turn affords staff-to-inmate ratios close to one-to-one, in stark contrast to the way American prison officers are often badly outnumbered. Small Nordic prisons can commit themselves to re-assimilation and attempt to make life inside as similar to life outside as possible. Prisons offer job training, educational programs and rehabilitative programs, with re-offending rates that are less than half of those in the United Kingdom and other European countries.
Wealth will not keep you out of a Swedish lockup. Most people accused of crimes carrying a sentence of a year or more are held before trial, often in isolation, a practice regularly criticized by international observers. Meanwhile, in the United States, an estimated 450,000 people — more than 75 times the entire confined population of Sweden — are jailed for the inability to pay cash bail, a policy either unknown or illegal in practically the rest of the world.
Trump has tweeted that Americans abroad should be treated “fairly.” A core element of fairness is that similar crimes are treated similarly, and different crimes treated differently, no matter one’s social or financial status. The United States has been failing this test since its founding: The case of billionaire and alleged child-sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, who evaded real justice for years, is only the most recent example.
Of course, Sweden is not immune to prejudice. Its treatment of the indigenous Sami people is nothing to brag about, and the country is feeling immigration’s strains on civil structures designed to care for all its residents equally. Its reputation for tolerance is now being tested — and, at times, is failing. New immigrants are overrepresented among criminal suspects, and though this trend consistently shrinks with every generation, it makes suspicions that A$AP Rocky was targeted based on race more understandable. But unlike the United States, this is a relatively new bad habit, like a kid tasting death from an e-cigarette, not the blood-spattering hack of a smoker who learned to light up in the womb.
Sweden is, in short, different and imperfect, bearing legal habits that should both inspire and trouble us as we look to reform our own. In the meantime, what the president and other supporters of A$AP Rocky should consider is that Sweden’s system, for all its flaws, might be a better example of “fairness” than our own.