By Dianne Frazee-Walker

Sweden is doing something to lower the recidivism rate and forcing prisons to close because they are taking a different approach to crime and punishment.

Globally, we need to play close attention to what Sweden is doing.

The sentences are not as long in Sweden, which makes prison authorities realize the work done on prisoners needs to begin when they enter the prison and show fast results. Ironically, this philosophy has earned Swedish prisons the reputation for being the most progressive and liberal prison system in the world. In 2005, Saddam Hussein knew what he was doing when he requested to spend his last days in a Swedish prison awaiting trial. Too bad for Mr. Hussein … prison authorities turned him down.

Nils Oberg, chief executive of Sweden’s probation service announced in November that four of Sweden’s prisons are going to be closed because of a significant drop in inmates.

Mysteriously, the crime rates in Sweden have not decreased, however between 2011 and 2012 the prison population fell 6%. Even though Oberg admits to being a little confused at the statistics at first, he is not surprised because he knows firsthand how the prisons are operating. He is proud to see how Sweden’s investment in rehabilitation is having a positive impact on lowering the recidivism rate.

Kenneth Gustafsson, governor of Kumla prison, Sweden’s most secure jail located 130 miles west of Stockholm, has witnessed many changes in Sweden’s prison system since he joined them as a rookie prison officer in 1978. He says the system was softer when he began his career because the focus was on humanitarianism. Following an escape the environment became more centered on security.

According to the UK Ministry of Justice, the reoffending rate is higher when the time served is 12-months or less and usually within a year of release. The Swedish system attributes their high regard for preventing juveniles from continuing into adulthood into the prison system to having a lower overall prison population than the UK. Sweden also has a much stronger treatment program for drug/alcohol abusers and violent offenders.

Prison sentences in Sweden rarely exceed 10-years, but reoffending is low because shorter sentences and higher quality time is spent preparing offenders for release. The Swedish prison system has been criticized for treating inmates “too nice,” but results show the softer approach is more effective. Community based measures with proven results are being implemented to insure short-term prison sentences.

Sweden’s non-punitive sentencing model must be working because the overall reoffending rate in Sweden is only 10-40%.

Post-prison support is another strong reinforcement for keeping ex-offenders from returning to prison. The success of inmate aftercare is attributed to a competent government sustained probation service. The agency goes above and beyond the standard probation process. Violence and aggression prevention programs are being developed in addition to well established drug and alcohol treatment programs. Young offenders and men with violent convictions are the top treatment priorities on the probation department’s agenda for the years 2014-2015. Swedish officials know that addressing these issues are the key to society being safe when these individuals are released.

X-Cons Sweden was founded by Peter Soderlund while he was serving nearly three years of a four-year sentence for drug and weapons charges. When Soderlund was released in 1998, he was treated by an organization called CRIS, Criminals Return In Society, appropriately named by the managers of the program who are former inmates. Soderlund helped develop the program until he resigned in 2008 because of conflict about offenders being treated while taking addiction medication. Soderlund agrees with treating individuals along with medication because he does not believe medication interferes with the purpose of the program, which is, helping prisoners successfully reintegrate into society after they have been released. Today, released prisoners are greeted by X-Cons at the gate with a network of support for a successful reentry into society.

The Swedish government realizes not every offender can be rehabilitated, although using rehabilitative processes facilitates change. The main concept other prison systems can learn from is this:  reintegration is a combined effort that demands support from both probation and society.    

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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