« Pragmatic Libertarian? Free-Market Socialist? Progressive Constitutionalist? | Main | RSS Feed Now Available »

The Finnish Prison System

An eye-opening story in the New York Times on the Finnish prison system:

In polls measuring what national institutions they admire the most, Finns put their criminal-coddling police in the No. 1 position.

The force is the smallest in per capita terms in Europe, but it has a corruption-free reputation and it solves 90 percent of its serious crimes...

Look in on Finland's penal institutions, whether those the system categorizes as "open" or "closed," and it is hard to tell when you've entered the world of custody. "This is a closed prison," Esko Aaltonen, warden of the Hameenlinna penitentiary, said in welcoming a visitor. "But you may have noticed you just drove in, and there was no gate blocking you."

Walls and fences have been removed in favor of unobtrusive camera surveillance and electronic alert networks. Instead of clanging iron gates, metal passageways and grim cells, there are linoleum-floored hallways lined with living spaces for inmates that resemble dormitory rooms more than lockups in a slammer.

Guards are unarmed and wear either civilian clothes or uniforms free of emblems like chevrons and epaulettes. "There are 10 guns in this prison, and they are all in my safe," Mr. Aaltonen said.

"The only time I take them out is for transfer of prisoners."

At the "open" prisons, inmates and guards address each other by first name. Prison superintendents go by nonmilitary titles like manager or governor, and prisoners are sometimes referred to as "clients" or, if they are youths, "pupils."

The story includes an amazing statistical graph:

According to this graph, the US rate of incarceration is 5.6 times that in the UK, 8.0 times that in the Netherlands, and 13.5 times that in Finland.

(According to this report from the Department of the Solicitor General of Canada, in 2001, the incarceration rate in Canada was 116 per 100,000 residents. According to this report from The Sentencing Project, Japan's incarceration rate in 2000 was 40 per 100,000 residents.)

Without suggesting that the nature of crime in the US is directly comparable to that in Finland, or that a close variant of the Finnish system could work in the US, I can't help but believe there must be a better way.

Post a comment