Dealing with crime

Politicians have long focused on “being tough on crime” – to ensure that those who are jailed are not just unable to escape their confinement, but also “feel” the punishment.
Yet if we want prisoners to rehabilitate, the evidence says this strategy does not work. Such punishment usually fails to deter reoffending. On the contrary, much crime is committed by those who “go in and out” of prisons. In some UK jails, 75 per cent re-offend.

There is another way. At Norway’s Bastøy prison on an island south of the capital Oslo, it is different. Re-offending rates are a fraction of those in the UK: 16 per cent at Bastøy, and less than 30 per cent in the country overall. This is despite some 65 to 70 per cent of Norway’s inmates having drug and alcohol problems. Personality disorders and antisocial behaviour are also common, and in that sense the prison population is like the UK’s. So why such different outcomes?

A prison sentence in Norway of course means loss of freedom, but it is not a regime that harms offenders mentally or physically. To make prison a place for rehabilitation requires finding a way to ensure that inmates are kept in jail while at the same time being treated as humans and keeping their civil rights – such as the right to vote. This means changing security methods, with fewer walls, fences and locked doors. There must be a focus on culture and ensuring that staff hold high qualifications and ethical standards.

Bastøy runs as a community, with most of the services, opportunities and challenges of a small Norwegian village. It is a place where inmates can learn and develop responsibility for the way they think and act. Developing respect and self-esteem is a priority. This starts with making each prisoner aware of what they think of themselves. All staff are trained to treat and socialise with inmates in a respectful way. Dignity and humanity are central.

Countries such as the US and UK should make more use of low-security and open-prison regimes. These cause less damage to mental health than high-security ones. To anyone who is still wedded to the primitive idea that retribution is essential, it is possible that the person they would like to see suffer in prison might one day return to their neighbourhood as a bigger threat.

We need politicians who heed research, best practice and experience, and are prepared to say “enough is enough”. A change is needed now, or some societies and countries may lose the fight against crime. They will certainly lose ataraxia and feelings of security.


  1. Some people think the current policy is driven by those who are unduly filled with fear from early in their lives – fear of everything, from fear of the immigrant and of a different colour of skin, to the level of crime ( which has actually been going down) and the thought of being assaulted or shot in the street. They probably can’t do anything about the fear, planted in childhood by equally fearful parents, but if they stopped to think about it rationally they might feel more secure if they treated criminals as human beings and re-habilitate them, then did something about gun control. Some hope!

  2. An excellent post! A key reason for Norway’s low reoffending rates is that felons have better life prospects once they leave. Despite the rhetoric of the American dream, social mobility in the US is relatively low. Criminals, who tend to come from poorer backgrounds, have less of a chance of becoming rich, so they resort to crime as the only lucrative profession available to them. All jobs should be available to former prisoners, unless they involve working with children or vulnerable people. If we treat people like they are irredeemable, they will also certainly behave that way.

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