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By Kristianna Anderson

In the midst of the debate on mass incarceration, perhaps the U.S. should look to the justice system of Norway and what it has accomplished under its sometimes-shocking model of restorative justice.

Despite being one of the most developed nations in the world, the U.S. has the distinction of retaining the world’s highest incarceration rate. With 2.3 million people currently incarcerated across the U.S., Americans may question the adequacy of our justice system and whether there is perhaps a better approach than mass incarceration. [1] One alternative is that adopted by Norway, a country with one of the lowest crime rates in the world: restorative justice. Under this approach, criminals are incarcerated not for the goal of punishing them, but for the goal of repairing the harm caused by the crime. Many Americans are unable to embrace this model because the nation’s sense of justice is founded in retribution. Perhaps it is time they reconsider.

“Many Americans are unable to embrace this model because the nation’s sense of justice is founded in retribution. Perhaps it is time they reconsider.”

To grasp the fundamental differences between the Norwegian and U.S. systems, one need look no further than their respective prison systems. In the U.S. there are 80,000 inmates in solitary confinement at any given moment. [2] Some high-security prisons confine inmates to their cells for 23 hours a day, their beds “concrete slabs topped with thin mattresses.” [3] Additionally, many educational programs have been cut due to decreasing budgets even though research has correlated higher education levels with lower recidivism rates. [4]

Compare this to Norway’s Halden Fengsel, also a maximum-security prison, infamous for its “plush” accommodations (comfortable beds and flat screen TVs in the cells) and for allowing inmates to participate in jogging outside, woodworking, pottery and cooking classes, and even recording in a music studio. [5] The prison windows are not barred, the prison guards are not armed, and the only form of security is a wall surrounding the premises. The goal of their prisons, according to Norway, is to mirror the life prisoners will be returning to upon release—to rehabilitate them so they can rejoin society as peaceful citizens. Their punishment is not the conditions in which they are placed, but the loss of their freedom; the same cannot be said for inmates in the U.S.

Americans, however, are uncomfortable with this Norwegian innovation precisely because they are so focused on punishment. Norway has no life sentence, let alone capital punishment. When Anders Brevik (the political terrorist who murdered 77 people in Norway’s worst peacetime massacre) was sentenced to the maximum term of 21 years in prison, it was Americans who were outraged. Indeed, most Norwegians reported satisfaction with this sentence. [7]

“Americans, however, are uncomfortable with this Norwegian innovation precisely because they are so focused on punishment.”

But when faced with the numbers, it is difficult for the U.S. to disregard Norway’s approach. Norway’s recidivism rate is just 20%, one of the world’s lowest, compared to the U.S.’s 76.6%, one of the highest. [8] Norway’s incarceration rate is 75 per 100,000 people, compared to the U.S.’s 707 per 100,000. [9] One common argument is that as one of the wealthiest countries in the world per capita, Norway can afford this model, while the U.S. could not. However, if the U.S.’s incarceration rates matched those of Norway, it could spend the yearly $93,000 per inmate Norway does instead of its current $31,000—while still saving $45 billion. [10]

The unique approach of restorative justice that Norway utilizes is a drastic departure from that of the U.S., but as incarceration rates continue to increase, perhaps we should consider Norway’s model and begin an effort to rehabilitate our inmates instead of simply ensuring they are punished.

Image: Copyright Halden Fengsel. Authorized only for use of the George Washington University Law School.


[1] Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017, (Mar. 14, 2017) https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2017.html.

[2] Amnesty International, Entombed: Isolation in the US Federal Prison System, (July 16, 2014) https://www.amnestyusa.org/reports/entombed-isolation-in-the-us-federal-prison-system/.

[3] Mark Binelli, Inside America’s Toughest Federal Prison, (Mar. 26, 2015) https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/magazine/inside-americas-toughest-federal-prison.html.

[4] Caitlin Curley, Prison Education Budget Cuts Are Costing Us More Money Than They Save, (Jan. 20, 2017) http://www.genfkd.org/prison-education-budget-cuts-costing-us-money-save.

[5] William Lee Adams, Norway Builds the World’s Most Human Prison, (May 10, 2010) http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1986002,00.html.

[6] Mark Lewis and Sarah Lyall, Norway Mass Killer Gets the Maximum: 21 Years, (Aug. 24, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/25/world/europe/anders-behring-breivik-murder-trial.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

[8] Christina Sterbenz, supra note 6.

[9] Id.

[10] Jessica Benko, The Radical Humaneness of Norway’s Halden Prison, (Mar. 26, 2015) https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/magazine/the-radical-humaneness-of-norways-halden-prison.html.