Looking More Like Scandinavia

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QUOTE: What’s wrong with America looking more like Scandinavia? - Bernie Sanders

When presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders implied that the United States ought to “look more like Scandinavia,” his statement took many Americans by surprise and even managed to offend their patriotism. The criminal justice system is one such area wherein the United States could indeed revisit its policies that target some of its poorest citizens and stand to look more like Scandinavia.

As it is, the criminal justice system in the United States is highly problematic, as it targets the country’s most vulnerable citizens. These are people who are caught in the vicious cycle of poverty, the impoverished of society being those who are disproportionately imprisoned. Race also plays an important factor, with more blacks in bondage today than were enslaved in 1850. In fact, according to (www.americanprogress.org), 1 in every 15 African American men and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men. According to the book, The Working Poor by David K. Shipler, drugs affect the poorest communities, and the tough-on-crime attitude has not helped. These circumstances are due to the fact, It is therefore not uncommon for young black men to be arrested more often, convicted at higher rates, and given lengthier sentences than their white counterparts.

STAT - The United States has about 5% of the world’s population yet it accounts for about 25% of the world’s prisoners. - - Incarceration and Recidivism: Lessons from Abroad, Carolyn W. Deady, March 2014

According to Carolyn W. Deady, the United States is the number one jailer of the world: “The United States has about 5% of the world’s population yet it accounts for about 25% of the world’s prisoners.” If the United States holds the dubious rank of number one, the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden rank 172, 176, and 179, respectively. Is there not something we can learn from them?

Ultimately, what is required is a paradigm shift toward the Scandinavian model of justice. The “tough-on-crime” approach, popular amongst American voters, is counterproductive and a failure. There is no evidence to suggest that longer and harsher sentences do anything to prevent or deter crime. On the contrary, “many of the states that have decreased incarceration rates have seen some of the largest drops in violent crimes.” The Scandinavian example would attest to this fact even more. As a case in point, the recidivism rate in Norway (20%) is less than half of what it is in the United States (52%). From both an ethical and utilitarian perspective, it would be worthwhile to adopt the Scandinavian attitude toward crime, which places a heavier emphasis on rehabilitation than retribution.

Another concerning development in the United States is the increasing privatization of jails and prisons. According to Dr. Irwin Nesoff, associate professor at Wheelock College, over 150 private prisons have emerged in the last thirty years. In fact, over ten percent of all prison beds in the United States are owned by for-profit businesses, and this number is fast increasing. These prison corporations are incentivized to imprison more people, and for longer durations. From an ethics standpoint, it is morally problematic to privatize prisons: it would be like allowing pharmaceutical companies to prescribe drugs directly to patients. There is a clear conflict of interests.

Even from a financial perspective, our criminal justice system makes little sense. Mass incarceration, a major component of both the War on Drugs and the War on Crime, does not come cheap and costs taxpayers over 35 billion dollars annually. While corporations profit, citizens suffer.


Yet, the Scandinavian approach provides a good model for us to follow, and we can no longer afford—neither morally or financially—to ignore our criminal justice system’s many problems.


Unfortunately, partisan politics and tribalistic patriotism make it difficult to have candid conversations about America’s justice system, and is, even more, difficult to look to the examples of other countries. Yet, the Scandinavian approach provides a good model for us to follow, and we can no longer afford—neither morally or financially—to ignore our criminal justice system’s many problems.

To learn more about Scandinavian Prisons, visit http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/09/why-scandinavian-prisons-are-superior/279949/

About the author: Farrah Hassan is a second-year social work graduate student. She is from Augusta, GA. After graduation, Farrah is interested in working with minorities and other vulnerable populations.

Bernie Sanders photo by Flickr user Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons