Communication: The Key to Unlocking Criminal Justice in America?

By Maggie Winding

The United States has the highest percentage of incarcerated people in the world, and yet maintains an above average crime rate. Norway, on the other hand, boasts of their extremely low incarceration percentage and practically non-existent crime rate, owing to their progressive methods of prison reform and thorough determinants of release eligibility. I believe Norway’s method of determining prisoner release to be superior and more effective than the methods utilized by the United States, and believe that if we were to implement a similar, personal evaluation-based approach we would see a significant decrease in our national rate of recidivism.

Norway’s method of partnering offenders with specific prison officials for the duration of their sentence promotes responsibility, reliability, and open communication resulting in an efficient system of reform that yields an extremely low rate of offenders returning to crime. In Norway’s correctional system, an offender can be sentenced to no more than twenty-one years in prison, no matter the crime. Despite what may seem to be a minuscule punishment, the effects are astounding—fewer than 80 people per 100,000 are incarcerated (0.08%) and  there are practically no repeat criminal offenders. Using a system called “restorative justice,” Norwegian prisoners undergo intense rehabilitation during their incarceration. Through rigorous sessions with cognitive behavioral therapists, drug and alcohol abuse counselors, and psychologists, prisoners leave the system ready to reintegrate into society. If by some chance, however, the doctors who have been working with the prisoner feel that he or she still poses a threat to society or has not been fully rehabilitated, there is an option to add five years to their sentence. This incentivizes offenders to maintain good behavior and prepare for reintegration into civilian life if they hope to be released as scheduled.

Sustained and professional interaction with the prisoner helps to form the basis for a well-educated parole or release decision, and better prepare the offender for re-entry into the community.  In this system, the people who make the decision on whether or not the prisoner should be released are the same people who have been working with them throughout their entire incarceration period. They are familiar with the personality and tendencies of the offender and know first-hand the progress that has been made. It is by their professional assessment and personal character evaluation that allow them to determine whether or not a prisoner should be released. This level of hands-on communication and interaction with the prisoner is what makes Norway’s correctional system so effective, and is a way in which the United States has largely failed.

America’s system, in comparison, is one of disconnection and delegation. As most criminal trials operate under the governance of individual states, justice may look different in various regions of the country. This article uses New York as the point of reference for the comparison. In the United States, correctional institutions do not assign prison staff to work with specific prisoners. Who works with whom is simply dependent on which prison guard is working each day. In this system, prison officials generally do not spend time and energy learning about the prisoners: their personalities, their quirks or their problems. They are simply there to keep the peace and make sure things operate smoothly. If a prisoner is granted a parole hearing to determine whether they may be eligible for release, they stand before a hearing officer and an administrative panel of three people appointed by the state governor to rule on decisions of parole, and have the opportunity to make a statement and plead their case. The hearing officer and administrative panel who decide the case have no prior knowledge of the prisoner standing before them, apart from what has been provided to them in a packet consisting of the offender’s initial sentencing record, any incident reports from time in incarceration, and potentially a written statement from the victim who will share their opinion on whether or not they feel the prisoner should be released. After reading the packet’s contents and hearing the prisoner’s statement, the administrative panel will vote to decide if he or she should be released by a majority ruling. Two of the three panel members must be in agreement on a certain course of action, whether that means releasing the prisoner, or deciding the prisoner should serve out the rest of their sentence.

I believe the method in use by the United States is both inefficient and ineffective, based on the amount of people in incarceration and the relatively unchanged crime rate, and suggest a policy change in favor of assigning a prison official to a specific offender to work together throughout the duration of the sentence. In looking at the effectiveness of Norway’s system, it is evident that having a prisoner work with the same person for the duration of their incarceration provides stability and reliability for the offender while they serve their sentence, while simultaneously allowing for a more just parole and release ruling. Someone who has worked with the offender and knows their personality well will be much more able to determine if the prisoner is ready to be released than a person who knows no more than what has been provided to them in a packet. While the United States may not have the funding to implement the extensive list of rehabilitation services Norway’s incarceration system offers, I believe that if an official were assigned to work with a prisoner during their incarceration and were allowed to have a say in decisions concerning the prisoner’s release, the national recidivism rate would be greatly reduced.












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