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Dodich: Stemming the Tide of Re-Offending Criminals

June 23, 2011

In Canada, the rate of crime is falling steadily, yet on the recent election campaign crime was talked up by all three major parties. One idea that was talked up often by Harper on the campaign trail is the Tories “tough on crime” legislation, a mega bill containing over 100 crime bills that had failed to pass under minority parliament. With their majority victory on May 2nd, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives returned to the House of Commons with a new mandate and a new lease on government. No longer will Harper have to strike deals with the opposition parties to get legislation passed. This new bill will have a detrimental effect on the rate of re-offending criminals, and will ultimately fail in its goal to make Canadian streets safer.

Do I feel that this new legislation will lead to a sudden spike in the rate of crime? Not in the instance of a first time offense. The worry lies in the rate of re-offense, those people who simply continue to commit crimes once they are released back into society. The focus of this piece will be an interesting and innovative system of criminal justice practised in Norway, which has one of the lowest re-offending rates in Europe and the lowest murder rate in the world. While the idea is revolutionary and runs counter to popular belief about crime and punishment, the Norwegian system provides an excellent example for Canada to follow if the Canadian government wants to truly get “tough on crime”.

Picture in your mind the typical closed prison system. Prisoners live behind bars, and have very little freedoms. They are told when to go to sleep, when to wake up in the morning, when to eat, when they can go outside, when they can see visitors, and the list goes on. There is a clear hierarchy between guards and prisoners, and all of these create problems. This is because in a prison, prisoners don’t learn the basic skills of responsibility that you and I and every other law abiding citizen learns. Waking up on time in order to show up to work, preparing our own meals, taking on the responsibility of ensuring the work gets done, and other factors that are important in creating a “model citizen,” someone who contributes to society and understands that with responsibility comes a bit of personal sacrifice. Instead, a prisoner sits in his cell, mad at himself for getting caught, mad at the police for catching him, and most importantly mad at the government, at the system that places them in jail. They interact with hundreds if not thousands of other prisoners just as mad as they are, unable to do much beyond plotting their next crime when they are released.

Let’s take a look at the Norwegian prison system now. Just like Canada, Norway has “closed prisons,” traditional prisons where inmates live behind bars for the bulk of any sentence greater than 4 years in length. In Norway, a life sentence is 21 years, but if a prisoner applies and gains access to the innovative “open” prisons, they spend a part of their sentence in the open prisons (17 in a closed prison and 4 years in the open prisons. One such open prison is Bastoy Island, just a few miles from mainland Norway. At first glance the island looks absolutely nothing like a prison, and that’s the idea. Prisoners live in large wood houses, guards are unarmed and only patrol at night, and the land is dotted with greenhouses and vegetable patches, as well as forests from which the sound of whirring chainsaws emanates. Prisoners are responsible for waking themselves up in the morning and getting themselves to work. Some of them take the ferry across to the mainland to work during the day, while others remain and work various jobs on the island themselves. Unlike other countries Norway offers almost all their prisoners training while in closed prisons, and this training is further branched out at Bastoy. Prisoners even earn salaries and have vacation, including trips to the mainland. There is such a large amount of trust in these prisoners that one man who killed two people and cut the bodies up with a chainsaw, spent his time at Bastoy with a chainsaw in the forest cutting down trees. Comparatively, in the UK only 10-30% of prisoners were offered education and training, rates that are unacceptable and inadequate if governments want prisoners to stop committing crimes.

How does this help the rate of reoffending? It treats prisoners as equals and gives them responsibility, as well as the necessary skills for a smooth transition back into the outer world. On Bastoy, when the annual crop of potatoes is ready, everyone, from the prisoners to the guards to the prison governor, all go down and hands and knees and pick the same amount of potatoes. This show of equality shows prisoners that if they stay on track, they will no longer feel as if they are below society. Many prisoners, some of whom have been interviewed on various news programs, speak of how the respect they are treated with goes a long way in showing them the value of playing by the rules.

What stops these prisoners from escaping is the threat of being sent back into a closed prison. There are still rules (no drugs and alcohol, and prisoners are expected to be in bed at a certain time), and on Bastoy, two single jail cells set next to the governor’s office, a reminder of the fate of those who slip back into their old habits. When one steps back and ignores the cries from those who continue to say that harsher sentences are the way forward, the idea championed in Norway makes sense. Treat someone as an equal, give them the skills and training to be successful, and give them control of a large degree of their life, and watch as they appreciate their new responsibility and turn that into productivity that benefits everyone.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 23, 2011 6:58 am

    What a shocking post! The idea that if we treat people with respect they will be more inclined to integrate back into a society which is based on trust and mutual respect! Don’t you know that bigger prisons make safer streets? Okay that’s about as long as I could do that. Excellent sir, if you ask any American prisoner they will tell you that jail is the equivalent of criminal higher education facilities. Great piece.

    • Michael Dodich permalink
      June 23, 2011 11:20 am

      thanks for the kind words!

  2. Mohammed Almoayad permalink
    June 23, 2011 12:40 pm

    Great article Michael, this is a very interesting and important subject.

    You can go further and point out why people become criminals in the first place, specifically the violent, pathological type of criminals that everyone demands to see suffer in some way to get justice.

    The first third of a great movie called “Zeitgeist: Movie Forward” does an amazing job of scientifically defining human nature (you can see it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Z9WVZddH9w). It confirms what a lot of philosophers thought: that it seems as though free will is almost nonexistent, or at least not a reasonable basis to judge people by. A person’s behaviour, lack of morality, ignorance, and pretty much everything he/she becomes is basically the product of their social/cultural conditioning. So in that sense, no one is really guilty or evil, everyone is just a victim of their conditioning, and you can easily judge a society/culture based on the type of people it produces. Most industrialized societies are borderline psychopathic and produce people with very unnaturally low capacities for sympathy and respect for each other. It’s also important to point out that the need to get revenge on people by making them suffer is just a primitive, selfish emotion people have. Any system that degrades and makes people suffer is not a justice system, it’s a primitive revenge system and it’s only real practical purpose is deterrence (and if you need a strong deterrence system to get people to behave decently, it says a lot about how superficial the morality is in the society).

    If the justice system was rational, and based on what we know scientifically about human beings, there would be no suffering or degradation deliberately imposed on anyone, because like you point out, it obviously conditions them to be even more immoral than before. If they’re treated with respect and sympathy, it conditions them to be more sympathetic and respectful. This should be common sense, but now we also have science to prove it.

  3. June 23, 2011 12:49 pm

    Absolutely! A great commentary on this hot-topic Canadian issue. Every teacher I’ve had this past year has said the same thing about prisons; they are the worst incubator for crime. We need to take a good look at our prison system and see if we can really make it a restorative justice system rather than a punitive justice system.

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