Legal Punishment: The U.S is Doing it All Wrong, but Norway Could be the Answer.

Polis: Center for Politics
4 min readDec 6, 2023

Jordyn Sandler (PPS ‘25)

Jordyn Sandler (PPS ‘25)

The U.S criminal system is immensely failing, and the statistics can prove it.

The United States incarcerates more people than anywhere else in the world — 505 people per every 100,000! The U.S makes up 5% of the global population yet houses 25% of the world’s prison population. 76% of the United States prison population will commit another crime after they are released…

The purpose of incarceration is to deter crime and ensure public safety, right? By that reasoning, the U.S should have low crime rates and be one of the safest given its world-leading incarceration rates. Nope! Rather, the United States has a remarkably high crime rate and is the 36th most dangerous country in the world out of 163.

Now, let’s explore some data about incarceration in Norway. Norway incarcerates 54 people every 100,000. Norway is within the top twenty safest countries in the world and a nation with some of the lowest crime rates in the world. Importantly, Norway also has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world at ~20%. Essentially, when someone is released from prison, they stay out of prison.

So, what is the difference between the United States and Norwegian prison systems? It lies within the two countries’ fundamental philosophies on the function and purpose of prison. Whereas punitive punishment is at the forefront of U.S prison, Norway has adopted a system founded in rehabilitation and humanity.

Let’s begin by exploring the difference in layout of a Norwegian prison. One prison adopted a campus-design opposed to the U.S typical prison architecture which is ideal for moving around mass inmates, confining them to identical hallways and cell windows that look onto other prison cells. Norway’s goal is to make the prison more humane. To do so, the campus design emulates real life: there is a separate housing, education, and visitation section. Similar to the way I commute from my dorm to class, inmates commute from housing to education. (Spoiler alert, the U.S doesn’t even have an education program in prison…)

In Norway, inmates spend time in living rooms and kitchens. They have private bedrooms with windows that look out onto the real-world, with their own bathroom and shower, and yes even heated floors!

While the physical differences between Norway and U.S prisons are abundant, the time spent in prison continues to emphasize the benefits to rehabilitation. One article quotes the goal is to “produce a person who, when the sentence has been served, is drug-free or in control of his drug use, has a suitable place to live, can read, write and do math, has a chance on the job market, can relate to family and friends and society at large, are able to seek help for problems that may arise after release and can live independently.”

Norwegian prisons offer inmates professional assistance, anti-violence and drug counseling. They even offer recreational activities such as 5-star cooking classes and a fully equipped recording studio! This may seem excessive, even ludicrous but in all seriousness, it actually works — “prisoners who were unemployed before prison see a 40% increase in employment rates after prison.”

One Norwegian Correction officer, Erik Trebbekk explains “we take away their freedom, but we don’t want to take away their life.” In fact, the officers actually dine with the inmates. When asked if Trebbekk ever fears for his safety, for example when dining with someone convicted of murder, he explains that is just a part of them, but he seeks to see the other parts.

The humanization of inmates is the key difference between the outlook on incarcerated individuals in Norway versus the U.S. Here, we label people as the worst day of their lives; they are a criminal, drug addict, or convict and that title follows them for the rest of their life. They can’t vote. They can’t get a job. They can’t get housing. So, even after they have served their time, the U.S never lets them forget their worst quality or give them a chance at success. We lock people away in tiny cells and treat them like animals with no respect, then expect them to exit prison a changed person. With zero tools to reform or rehabilitate, how is it fair to expect they have changed? It is not surprising that the U.S has such high recidivism rates.

It’s time the U.S looks to Norway. Let’s start treating our citizens behind prison walls with some more humanity.

Jordyn Sandler is from New York and an Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ‘23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.