Sweden is closing four of its prisons due to a “sharp fall” in the number of prison admissions in the past two years. “We have seen an out-of-the-ordinary decline in the number of inmates,” says Nils Oberg, the head of Sweden’s prison and probation services, in the Guardian. Accordingly, Sweden is taking “the opportunity to close down a part of our infrastructure that we don’t need at this point of time.”
The number of prisoners in Sweden, a country with a low rate of incarceration to begin with, hasfallen by 1 percent every year since 2004, according to the Guardian. It fell by 6 percent between 2011 and 2012 and is expected to decline again this year, Oberg notes. Two prisons will be sold and two others passed to the government for temporary use, though two prisons could be reopened if necessary.
Since 2004 when the Swedish prison population peaked at 5,722, it has now fallen by a sixth. Out of a population of 9.5 million, 4,852 people were in prison in Sweden in 2012.
More Lenient Policies and a Liberal Approach
The big question is — certainly for those of us living in the United States, which has the highest prison population in the world, with 716 inmates per 100,000 people vs. 51 per 100,000 in Sweden — how has the Scandinavian country achieved the feat of having a declining prison population?
Oberg acknowledges that “nobody” knows the reason for sure but, as he comments, he hopes that “Sweden’s liberal prison approach, with its strong focus on rehabilitating prisoners” has played a part.
Hanns von Hofer, a criminology professor at Stockholm University,†backs up Oberg’s point, noting that there has been a “recent shift in policy towards probationary sanctions instead of short prison sentences for minor thefts, drugs offenses and violent crimes” in Sweden. Regarding the declining numbers of inmates between 2004 and 2012, von Hofer says that 36 percent was for those convicted of offenses related to theft, 25 percent was for those convicted of drug offenses and 12 percent for those who had carried out violent crimes.
Sweden has also instituted more lenient sentences for some crimes in recent years. For instance, in 2011, Sweden’s supreme court ruled that the courts should give more lenient sentences to drug offenses. As a result, as of last March, about 200 fewer people were serving time for drug sentences than in the year before.
Some Types of Crime in Sweden Have Actually Increased
As†Palash Ghosh points out in the International Business Times, while the number of prisoners in Sweden has fallen, crime has not necessarily decreased. Citing data from†the Swedish governmentís National Council for Crime Prevention, Ghosh points out that†the number of drug crimes, fraud and some types of burglary has actually gone up since 2010:
For example, in 2012, Sweden recorded about 94,400 drug-related crimes, a 6 percent increase from the previous year. Over the past decade, reported drug crimes have doubled (although the Council cautions that the data does not prove conclusively that drug abuse has climbed by that magnitude).
Ghosh also observes that, for all that Sweden has a global image as a country with a huge regard for human rights and the cultivation of a humane society in its approach to criminal justice,†the European Unionís anti-torture office condemned it four years ago “for its practice of imposing lengthy periods of isolation for some prisoners in its system Ė up to 18 months at a time.” Notably, about one-third of prisoners in Sweden are foreigners.
Is Sweden’s Decline in Prisoners Only Temporary?
Oberg is not certain if the decline in prisoners in Sweden is†”a long-term trend” that represents “a change in paradigm.” What is significant, he notes, is that “the pressure on the criminal justice system has dropped markedly in recent years.”
Oberg still thinks the Swedish government could do more to rehabilitate prisoners. In an opinion piece for Sweden’s DN newspaper (in which he announced that the closure of the four prisons), Oberg has called on the country to do even more to help prisoners, especially after they have been released and are being reintegrated into society.
It’s a stance that is quite the opposite of calls to “get tough on crime” and of “three strikes and you’re out” laws in the United States, where more than 3,000 prisoners are serving life sentences without parole for non-violent crimes including shoplifting. Sweden’s “problem” of having too few prisoners offers evidence for why the United States needs to review its drug-sentencing protocol and undertake prison reform.
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