Where Prisons Are A Last Resort
How Finland & Norway Cut Prisons, Increased Social Programs, and Boosted Public Safety
By Richie “Reseda” Edmond-Vargas
Co-Founder, Initiate Justice
“You know what the difference is between Finland and the U.S.? In the U.S., you have to earn being a human.”
-Kenneth Hartman. Formerly sentenced to life, without the possibility of parole; spent 38 years in prison, 2 years on parole.
As a person who has spent over 14 years involved with the United States criminal legal system, 7 of which I spent incarcerated in California state prison, it was emotional for me to visit and study the public safety systems of Finland and Norway. More than once, I cried. I was overwhelmed by the ache that accompanied discovering how most of the pain my loved ones and I have suffered was completely avoidable — that there were countries on earth that didn’t treat people the way we are treated. That had many of my closest loved ones been born in these countries instead of ours, they would be free right now. They would be financially stable. They would have closer relationships with their families.
The mission of the Finnish Criminal Sanctions Agency is to “support people to live lives free of crime.” Finland discovered that prisons are the least helpful mechanism to keep society safe, and that the best way to keep people safe is to meet people’s basic needs. They learned that:
- Free and accessible rehab is the most effective way to diminish drug crime.
- Universal basic income is the most effective way to diminish property crime.
- Undercutting social marginalization is the most effective way to diminish violent crime.
Prison is used as a “last resort” for only the most serious crimes. Even then, prisons are designed to safely transform behavior, rather than to punish.
The Finnish system looks to enforce the law with “as open conditions as possible.” In over 50% of cases, prisons are not used. They instead use what they call “community sanctions,” which include community service and conditional release (staying out of prison, but following a required, strict rehabilitation plan).
People who go to prison develop individualized rehabilitation plans with the agency’s Assessment Center. As they achieve the goals on their plan, they earn more freedom and more responsibility over their lives. They start in what’s called a “closed prison,” then go down into “open prisons,” then move into various forms of in-community treatment as they meet the goals on their plan.
- There are only 4 children incarcerated in the whole country. Children who break the law work with the child welfare system rather than the criminal sanctions system. Their illegal act is seen as a symptom of their unwellness, as opposed to something to be focused on and prosecuted. There are only 77 people in prison who went in between the ages of 18 and 21 years old.
- Drug use is decriminalized. Drug addiction is treated as a health problem. However, selling and smuggling drugs are crimes.
- The maximum amount of time a person can spend in prison is 20 years. A “life sentence” in Finland is 20 years. All lifers are available for parole after 12 years. Most lifers do between 12–15 years.
- Half of all sentences are served in the community. Of the people who do go to prison, half are out within 6 months.
- Everyone gets family visits.
- After serving half of one’s time, a person can apply for “furloughs” to leave prison and visit home.
The Norwegian Correctional Service operates from one guiding question:
What kind of neighbor do you want?
They transitioned to this model 21 years ago. Back in 1998, Norway’s prisons were plagued with gangs, assaults, high recidivism rates and high suicide rates, for people both incarcerated and employed in prisons. The government took notice, and took a stand to create a system more in line with the social welfare states of the other Nordic countries.
After much research, they moved to a system based on four principles:
- Normality: Incarcerating people only when absolutely necessary, in the most normal conditions possible, so as to not institutionalize (harm) them.
- Humanity: Treat people humanely.
- Dynamic Security: Keep prisons safe by taking care of people, giving them no reason to act violently.
- Reintegration: Prepare people to leave safely from the moment of their arrest.
They found that most people are in prison because of poverty, childhood trauma, lack of employment skills, and substance abuse. Their system is designed to help people address these issues and get them out. They believe they should only restrict liberty to the extent necessary to make this happen. These changes led them to go from a 70% recidivism rate to a 25% 5-year recidivism rate.
- Each person incarcerated is assigned a contact officer, a CO who becomes their counselor and case manager. They develop deep relationships with these individuals and they work together to help the incarcerated person succeed.
- Incarcerated people develop plans for their futures with their contact officers and earn privileges as they complete their plan.
- Incarcerated people, contact officers and the administration determine how to respond to the incarcerated person’s misconduct, and if punishment is needed.
- Issues are discussed with the contact officer and the entire housing unit; one person’s infractions are treated as a community issue.
- The max sentence is 21 years, and most people do 2/3’s of their time. In extreme cases, though this is sometimes overused, courts can act like a parole board, meaning they can deny a person’s parole for a certain amount of years.
- Prisons are designed to look and function like society. Prisons have green space, art, grocery stores, and normal furniture.
- All visits happen in private and are an hour long.
- There are multiple, small prisons within an hour of where the incarcerated person lives.
- People can earn furloughs, where they leave the prison: at first with their contact officer, then alone, then eventually they can spend a weekend out of the prison every 3 months (99.92% of people return as required).
- People are paid $8 a day to attend programs (work or school).
- Most cases are given community sanctions, not prison.
- People are required to take parenting classes to get family visits. Family visit length depends on the distance of family members.
- 99% of people are released within 5 years.
- Decriminalized drug use.
- National restorative justice program responds to many cases, including serious ones, and almost all juvenile cases are dealt with using restorative means in the community
Walking down the cobblestone streets of Finland and Norway, I felt the sense of ease and safety people had. These people saw each other as community, and trusted their government because it took care of that community.
The social-welfare approach to public safety was detectable not only in what I saw, but in what I didn’t see. I didn’t see many unhoused people, I didn’t see many police, and I didn’t see people with that desperate look in their eye that accompanies poverty and suffering. The systems of these countries serve people first, which minimizes desperation, and therefore, crime. The best thing we can do in the U.S. is to start building our systems to do the same.
By Richie “Reseda” Edmond-Vargas
Co-Founder & Director of Inside Organizing