In 2009, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, killed thirteen people at Fort Hood in Texas. He was later sentenced to death by a military jury. In 2011, Anders Breivik killed seventy-seven people, mostly teenagers at an island summer camp in Norway. He received a sentence of twenty-one years with the possibility of extension if he continues to be dangerous to society.
Thirteen people, sentenced to death. Seventy-seven people, sentenced to twenty-one years in prison. Are Norwegians too lenient? Are Americans too harsh?
As it turns out, this is precisely the wrong question to ask.
It is the wrong question because the difference between American and Norwegian sentencing is not the length of the sentence, but the purpose. In the United States, justice is retributive and focused on the past. If an individual harms society in some way, he or she must undergo equal harm in order to restore the scales of justice to good order. In Norway, on the other hand, justice is restorative and focused on the future. Individuals who commit crimes are seen as broken human beings who need to be fixed.
Norway’s sentencing processes and humane prison settings certainly reflect that goal. Norwegian prisoners are given trust and responsibility, along with educational opportunities and job training. Norwegian prison cells are thoroughly modern and are furnished with computers, mini-fridges and IKEA-like furniture to prepare residents to return to society after their stay.
Norwegian corrections officers treat prisoners like human beings and view their role as similar to that of a counselor or therapist, not a guard. They undergo two years of training and are instructed to make each prisoner’s time meaningful and rehabilitative, which means that they often play sports or eat meals with their charges. Corrections officers even knock before entering a prisoner’s room to convey a sense of privacy and respect.
While all of this may sound naïve and even dangerous to Americans, the Norwegian recidivism rate is one of the lowest in the world at just 20 percent. That’s less than one third of the recidivism of American federal prisoners.
The lower recidivism rates, though perhaps surprising, make sense. In America, long sentences often leave prisoners institutionalized and riddled with symptoms such as loss of decision-making skills, hypervigilance, distrust and withdrawal. In Norway, on the other hand, sentences are viewed as a time to break harmful patterns of living and to prepare for life in society.
At its heart, Norway’s justice system appears to be asking very different questions about what it means to hold people accountable for the crimes they commit. While each country should certainly have a justice system particular to its own unique character and needs, surely many countries can learn something from Norway’s future-oriented mindset toward justice.
Whether the Norwegians know it or not, their restorative justice is deeply biblical and reflects the very nature of God, which is both just and compassionate and ever desirous for the complete restoration of all creation.