Sweden prisons close despite rising crime

2014-01-09 12:40
The high security prison in the town of Norrtaelje. (Jonathan Nackstrand, AFP)

The high security prison in the town of Norrtaelje. (Jonathan Nackstrand, AFP)

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Stockholm - Swedish judge Carin Westerlund says she seldom hesitates to take the opportunity of keeping a convict out of prison.

"I can choose to hand down a probation or community service sentence rather than condemn someone to prison", Westerlund, a judge in Uppsala district, told AFP.

Alternative sentences are not available to all offenders, though.

"If we talk about other crimes, like burglaries, narcotics or sexual violence, I'd say the sentences haven't changed in the last ten years", Westerlund said.

As judges opt for electronic tagging and other sentences that keep inmate numbers down, Sweden is closing prisons, even as crimes rates are rising.

Anyone sentenced to less than six months in jail has the right, since 2005, to request an electronic bracelet rather than incarceration and many judges have embraced the policy.

Along with its Nordic neighbours, Sweden has one of the world's lowest incarceration rates, 0.5 per 1 000, half the level of France and ten times less than the United States.

Drug policy

And the country's prison population fell by nearly 1 000 over the last decade to about 4 300 today according to the Swedish prison and probation service.

However, greater use of electronic bracelets and probation alone may not explain the rapid fall in the numbers of prisoners.

"We're looking into the causes but it's still too early to give definitive answers", said Nils Oeberg, head of the prison and probation service.

A recent study from Stockholm University's criminology department indicated that non-custodial sentences have played a major role in slashing prisoner numbers.

In 2011 the Supreme Court issued new criteria for drug trafficking convictions which resulted in less severe sentencing for more minor crimes, according to the Swedish justice ministry.

Swedish courts are also more likely to grant parole after two-thirds of a sentence has been served.

Rehabilitation

Another factor may be large state investments in rehabilitation and re-offending prevention programmes.

A 38-year-old inmate at Norrtaelje Prison, who declined to give his name, said that prisoners in Sweden have access to education and "a chance to start over".

"It's the first time I serve a sentence and I hope it'll be the last", he told AFP.

Falling prisoner numbers do not appear to have much to do with the country's crime rate which grew from 1.2 million offences in 2004 to 1.4 million in 2012, according to the Swedish national council for crime prevention.

The increase included a significant rise in drug crimes, fraud and assault.

Sweden's current centre-right government has attempted to bring in tougher sentencing for serious crimes, particularly murder but their proposals have run up against opposition from a judiciary that believes more in rehabilitation than punishment.

Dwindling numbers

That more lenient approach is supported by many Swedes but it has its critics, not least from the national victim support association.

"Life sentences for murder cases are not that frequent anymore", said Sven-Erik Alhem who heads the association.

"In my opinion, it's obvious that any murder case should be punished by life sentences. It's very important to say that the families of those who have been killed suffer a lot. They don't think its right to have a short period of time in prison."

In 2013 the dwindling number of prisoners led to the closing of four Swedish prisons and one rehabilitation centre out of a total of 82 penal institutions.

Oeberg said they were "quite old" and that a big investment would have been needed to keep them operational.

The remaining institutions are generally under-occupied.

"If short sentences are served in probation, that empties the prisons", said Anders Ekstroem, inspector of Norrtaelje Prison, which has 160 inmates with a capacity for 200.

Oeberg does not think fewer criminals in the country's prisons will lead to more violence or put him out of work.

"It's a good opportunity to work on preventing re-offending and finding a more effective way to strengthen public order and security in the long-run", he said.

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