Sunday, March 18, 2012

Contributor Spotlight: Inequitable Incarceration Efforts in Norway and United States

Today's post is written by Kevin Stordahl, a student at the University of Washington, working on his sociology degree.
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Incarceration in the United States has increasingly become a focal point of racial and social inequality over the past decade.  Socially, the prison system does little to correct any behavioral problems and uses a simple punishment tactic that puts people behind bars for a determined amount of time.  This has resulted in a recidivism rate a little over 60% and even higher than that when you look at non-violent crimes such as; robbery, larceny, motor vehicle theft, and selling of stolen property (Bureau of Justice Statistics, BJS).  This alone shows that we need to reform the system so it is more efficient in correcting these behavioral problems so that they can try to live differently when they are released.  More alarming though, are the racial disparities that are infused into the U.S. prison systems.  African Americans, while constituting 12.6 percent of the total U.S. population, make up 35.4 percent of those incarcerated.  In comparison, the white prison population makes up just less than that at 32.9 percent while making up 72 percent of the total U.S. population (2010 census).  Mostly attributed to the War on Drugs that began under President Reagan in the early 1980s, African Americans have been subjected to racial profiling and discrimination by the criminal justice system in the U.S. more often than any other racial group.  This issue of racial discrimination is nothing new in the United States.  In fact, it has been the basis for much our country’s legislative history and has shaped the ways in which people interact with people from different racial groups.
            Norway has inequalities in their incarceration efforts as well, but by simply looking at the rates they do not seem to be to the extent of those in the United States. The historical past of Norway becoming an independent nation, the laws that followed the independence along with their unique rehabilitation incarceration system, have contributed to their skewed incarceration statistics that suggest that they are more tolerant of minority groups than the U.S.  In some ways, the immigrant population in Norway is analogous to minority racial groups in the United States.  Focusing on incarceration, their populations in their respective prison systems do not accurately represent their respective countries’ total populations and they continue to be disproportionately charged and convicted of criminal activity.  Today, Norway remains 94.4 percent Norwegian, while 3 percent of the population is comprised of immigrants from other European countries and only 2 percent come from countries outside of Europe.  These immigrants are the recipients of most discrimination and inequalities but they are not as evident in Norway as they are in the United States because of the lack of distinct diverse groups.  While the immigrant population only makes up about 5 percent of the total population in Norway, they make up 19.5 percent of those incarcerated in Norway.  These rates are somewhat comparable to those in the United States, but it suggests that if there was more diversity in Norway, there would be even greater disparities between groups who are incarcerated, possibly more than the disparities seen in the U.S., because of the focus on creating and preserving a national Norwegian identity.
            Eileen Myrdahl, in her dissertation on Norwegian racial projects, discusses the history and formation of the Norwegian identity and the legislation that was put in place to protect that identity.  After long being ruled by Danish and Swedish powers, Norway gained its independence in 1905 and made strong efforts to create a national identity in order to set themselves apart from the Danish and Swedish identities.  These efforts continued through Nazi occupation during WWII, from 1940 to 1945, and concentrated on making the Norwegian identity in an anti-Nazi manner.  Anyone who had been born of a German man and Norwegian woman were classified as non-Norwegian along with anyone who had been employed by the Nazi regime.  In 1956, Norway had eradicated all laws pertaining to barring particular groups of people from immigrating into the country, which had been put into place after WWII, invited Hungarian refugees who were fighting Communism and the U.S.S.R., but at the same time, also decided to not accept migrants from other European nations, claiming that they were inassimilable (Myrdahl).  Eventually this inassimilable characteristic got stretched to apply to those with darker skin, in particularly those from Asia and Africa. As one can imagine, this did not result in any real influx of immigrants from all over the world and actually led to the politicization of immigration laws in the 1970s that focused on Asian and African nations because of a labor movement that was short lived and did little to change the population in the late 1960s (Myrdahl).  One law in particular that has led to most of the immigrant population in Norway is the family reunification law.  This law allows for people who live outside Norway to apply for entry into the country on the basis of reconnecting with a family member who already lives in Norway.  Laws put in place in the following decade focused on immigrants and their ability to gain citizenship.  The Immigration Act of 1988 allowed migration into the country, but those who moved to Norway had to have continuous residence for 7 years with a record of “good” behavior.  This law also said that any children born in Norway of two foreign parents had to wait until the age of 18 to apply for citizenship (Migration Policy Institute, MPI).  These laws show how important preserving the Norwegian identity is to the country and also gives a scope of how difficult it is to be truly accepted as a Norwegian if you are an immigrant.
This focus on a national identity is something that the United States has not embraced to the extent that Norway has, but has a similar background in that there have been restrictions on who could actively be a part of American society.  Since the early colonization of the United States, the dominant white culture has subordinated people of color through legislation and force with a focus on assimilation.  As soon as the first colonizers arrived in the Americas they began calling the indigenous people “unfit” to rule themselves and decided to take matters into their own hands.  This process of labeling minority racial groups who were not white as “unfit” was used throughout the time before the Civil War and the Reconstruction efforts in order to justify the violence that came to be the center of black and white race relations (Moon Ho-Jung).  It was not until after the Civil Rights Movement when the subordination of racial groups became a more taboo subject and seemingly less accepted across the nation. This has resulted in a near annihilation of American Indians and high percentages of poverty among other minority groups, mostly Latino and African American. More importantly though, the subordination has made significant advances in the United States’ prison system over the last few decades, with a total prison population of nearly 2.3 million, the prisons in the United States have continuously become increasingly occupied by minorities, most evident are African Americans, who make up about 35 percent (ABC news).  While this subordination may be outrageous and unfair, it is not surprising considering the fact that these types of racial disparities have always been a part of United States history. 
Another possible reason for the skewed comparison of incarceration rates between Norway and the United States are the differences in recidivism rates.  The United States has a recidivism rate of nearly 70 percent in a criminal justice system whose sole purpose is to gage the severity of a committed crime and sentence the criminal to a period of jail time (BJS).  The tactic of punishment has long been the way of dealing with criminals in the United States and one would think that severely punishing an individual would make them less likely to engage in criminal activity that would result in them returning, but obviously this is not the case.  The system does nothing to help correct or prevent criminal behavior. So naturally, criminals who are released, more often than not, get rearrested and put back in jail, often for the same crime or a crime similar to what they had previously gotten in trouble for.  This is important because if African Americans make up the majority of the prison population, it means they are most likely the ones who are rearrested after already facing longer average sentences than whites accused of the same crimes.  In 2002, African Americans with a drug offense had an average prison term of 105 months compared to 62 months for whites with a drug offence (BJS).  This supports the notion that racial discrimination is laced throughout the entire criminal justice system in the United States and as a result it has had a negative impact on minority groups.
Norway, in comparison, has a very different approach in its prison system which includes more rehabilitating efforts in dealing with criminal behavior.  First of all, they do not have a death penalty.  The longest sentence an individual can serve is 21 years and potentially up to 30 years if it is a crime against humanity.  They do have another option that is rarely used that includes a system of review every five years to determine if the individual has been rehabilitated.  This is the only way a person could potentially get a life sentence.  Secondly, they work to rehabilitate criminals through socialization and providing them with opportunities to get educated and to learn to take responsibility of not only their actions, but in some situations, like at the Bastoy Prison, of a small business.  As a result of this approach, Norway has a recidivism rate of about 40 percent, two-thirds less than that in the United States.  So even though there is still a disproportional amount of immigrants in prison that misrepresents the total population of Norway, its system provides individuals with an alternative to simply sitting in a cell, rotting away, and it has proven to help lessen the amount of those who are rearrested.  This approach does have some disputed tactics though.
This approach has been seen, by many, as the most progressive way in dealing with crime in Europe and it would appear to be a more effective use of taxpayer dollars in dealing with criminal behavior.  But a criticism that this approach has had to deal with recently is the criminals who commit violent crimes against humanity.  Anders Breivik, who is a well-known Norwegian terrorist and recently killed over 70 people in attacks last July, is being placed in this rehabilitation prison system in Norway.  Many Norwegians have actually come together to voice their opinion in opposition to the rehabilitation effort of this particular individual because of his goal to divide the nation of Norway, but the current Norwegian policy is being applied to Breivik in the same way they are to any other criminal convicted of violent crimes.  The severity of the violence is something that Norway does not have to deal with often, so violent in fact, that many people across the world are skeptical of the rehabilitation process working on Breivik.  It will be interesting to see if the efforts to rehabilitate a mass murderer will be successful or if he will end up being classified as mentally ill and placed in an asylum.  One thing is for sure, Norway’s prison system has shown evidence of actually correcting criminal behavior by simply treating its criminals as human beings, while we will have to wait and see if it will work for an extreme case such as Breivik’s.
While incarceration rates in the United States and Norway suggest that there is similar discrimination that occurs in their respective criminal justice systems, it is the history of racial groups in the U.S. and the construction of a national identity in Norway that play a role in the animosity felt toward minority groups.  The United States, however, has in place a criminal justice system that does little to correct criminal behavior and seemingly works to keep those classified as criminal locked up away from society for our safety.  Norway’s criminal justice system, on the other hand, offers opportunities for criminals to correct their behavior through self-reflection, education, and socialization.  The compared recidivism rates suggest that the U.S. should look at reforming parts of their system, but perhaps not to the extreme that Norway currently has in dealing with even the most violent of criminals. For those criminals who have never committed a violent act, there should be more opportunity for them to get out of the prison system and back into society as a productive and competent individual.

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