Norway has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. And researchers have long theorised that one of the reasons for this is the country has long, cold winters – weather that acts as a deterrent for crime. Others believe a contributing factor is the country’s strict firearm laws, which are, along with Australia’s, amongst the toughest in the world.

But in recent times, the low crime rate in Norway is dwindling even further. And the reasons for it are far from conjecture.

Over the past few decades, the Norwegian Government has taken some extraordinary steps – most notably an innovative rehabilitative, rather than punitive, approach to its treatment of prison inmates.

It is often said that people are sent to prison as punishment, not to be punished. And Norway is certainly a country that embraces this idea – that inmates lose their freedom but not their dignity.

Rehabilitation versus punishment

Two important factors underpin the Norwegian approach:

The first is the modern nature of its prisons. The nation’s best known and newest prison, established in 2010 is called Halden fengsel.

It houses some of Norway’s worst criminals including murderers and paedophiles. It is built in the woods, amongst nature. While prisoners are locked behind large wire fences, they have expansive views through large glass panels of greenery, birds and other wildlife.

Inside, the facilities are clean and modern. Inmates can wear their own clothes. They are allocated their own private rooms with an ensuite and there are a number of communal spaces including a kitchen where prisoners are encouraged to cook, study areas, where prisoners are encouraged to learn new skills, and spaces for recreation like games and television and exercise.

On the island of Bastoy, prisoners are largely self-sufficient, growing their own food. They live in cottages which house six men – each has their own bedroom, but share the remainder of the home. Only one meal a day is provided, the men learn to grow food and cook, and co-operate to put meals on the table and keep the house clean.

The second factor is that inmates are treated with courtesy, civility and respect. Most prison staff are not armed. There are rules, but the basic premise is that by treating inmates with respect, they will learn to respect others.

Both of these strategies have not been without their critics. Many people believe that prisoners don’t deserve any rights – that prison should be a place of deprivation and penance.

But the reoffending rates speak for themselves – they are amongst the lowest in the world.

By contrast Australian prisons are overcrowded. Where there are windows, in most cases, security bars let little light in. Cells usually contain more than one prisoner. Food is supplied as single frozen meals and reheated before serving. Prison food has been regularly criticised for not providing adequate nutritional value.

And while there are different standards in Australian jails, for the most part, they’re sterile places, and while prisoners do have some free time, they also spend a great deal of time locked in their cells, unable to move freely about the facility.

Norway spends about $160,000 per annum per prisoner, compared to about $130,000 per prisoner (and rising) in Australia.

In Australia, prison population rates are rising too.

But the most significant measure of success has to be reoffending rates. In Norway, where there is an investment made in ensuring that prisoners leave prison with valuable life skills, and employment skills, the recidivism rates are less than 20%.

In New South Wales, in 2017-2018 according to (Bureau of Crime Statistic and Reserch (BOCSAR) 26.8% of those released from prison reoffended within 12 months; this increased to 29.4% in 2018.

Other figures published by the Sentencing Advisory Council show that in 2018-2019, 51.5% convicted offenders returned to prison within two years.

Experts say the number tends to be even higher for juvenile offenders and much has been written about the need to delivert young offenders away from the prison system, before they become “institutionalised” and incapable of anything more than pursuing a life of crime.

These figures paint a general picture – there are a number of considerations that need to be taken into account when we consider why people commit crimes, and also why they re-offend, but many studies have pointed to the lack of emphasis on rehabilitation and restorative justice strategies within Australian prisons.

These go beyond making sure that prisoners can get a job when they are paroled, or have somewhere to live, it’s also about ensuring that they have good overall health – mental and emotional – as well as critical interpersonal skills that are going to be an essential part of reintegration into society.

Decriminalising personal possession and use of drugs

More recently, Norway has also made moves to decriminalise the personal use of illegal drugs in small quantities and drug possession in small quantities. While these offences are still considered illegal, they are not punishable.

Norway, like many other countries, is taking the approach that drug use is a health issue, and should be treated with that firmly in mind. This of course, takes an enormous strain off the justice system, and also the prison system.

Because these types of drug offences are typically committed by young people, it also provides a valuable chance for them to turn their lives around, rather than develop life-long addictions that have the potential to make them reliant on a life of crime to feed their addictions.

Decriminalisation of drugs has been discussed over and over again in Australia and we do have other forms of sentencing for non-violent, low-risk offenders including home detention, community service, fines, and restitution orders, but we still by and large, have a punitive-based approach, particularly towards drugs.

In fact, under Australian law there is no need for the prosecution to prove that you owned the drugs – you can still be charged with this offence where you were simply holding drugs for a friend. The maximum penalty (which applies in the most serious cases) is 2 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $2,200.

The hangover of our criminal past

One of the significant obstacles to change in Australia is our ingrained culture – we were founded as a penal colony and while that’s a significant part of our history, it doesn’t need to determine our future.

The Norwegian example should provide food for thought for Australian authorities. Increasing prison population numbers and increasing reoffending rates should be signal enough that the system isn’t working effectively. In fact, it is just becoming more of a burden on Australian taxpayers.

As crime rates steadily increase, Australian governments have simply responded by spending more on policing to the point where Australia now has one of the highest expenditures on police and prisons out of any country in the OECD.

In 2017, $16 billion was spent on the criminal justice system, with $4 billion spent on keeping people in prisons, placing Australia fifth in OECD rankings. Today, reported estimates of combined territory and federal police budgets, plus the amount spent on corrective services, puts the figure closer to $19 billion.

We should expect more return on investment. The Norwegian example certainly shows it’s possible.