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Sweden’s Shrinking Prison Population

Sweden’s prison population has seen such a sharp drop in recent years that the nation’s prison service announced in November 2013 that it had closed four correctional facilities and a remand center.

Prisons in Aby, Haja, Batshagen and Kristianstad were closed in 2013; two will likely be sold and the others transferred to other government agencies for temporary use. “We have seen an out-of-the-ordinary decline in the number of inmates,” said Nils Oberg, head of Sweden’s prison and probation services. “Now we have the opportunity to close down a part of our infrastructure that we don’t need at this point in time.”

Sweden’s prison population has been dropping by around one percent per year since 2004, but declined six percent between 2011 and 2012. Oberg stated that he expects to see another six percent drop during 2013 and in 2014.

He said no one knows for sure why Sweden’s prison population has dropped so sharply. “We certainly hope that the efforts we invest in rehabilitation and preventing relapse of crime has had an impact, but we don’t think this could explain the entire drop of six percent.”

One contributing factor may be related to a 2011 decision by the Swedish Supreme Court that resulted in more lenient sentences for drug offenders. There were about 200 fewer people serving prison terms for drug crimes as of March 2013 than a year before.

Hans von Hofer, a criminology professor at Stockholm University, believes that a recent shift in sentencing policy is a significant factor. Sweden has replaced short prison sentences with probationary sanctions for many minor offenses such as thefts and drug crimes. Of the fall in Sweden’s prison population between 2004 and 2013, 36 percent was related to theft, 25 percent to drug offenses and 12 percent to violent crime.

The nation’s prison population has decreased by nearly a sixth since peaking in 2004 at 5,722. In 2012, 4,852 people were imprisoned in Sweden, which has a population of 9.5 million – a rate of 51 per 100,000 citizens.

Sweden ranks 112th in the world for prison populations. The United States is the leader, with a prison and jail population of approximately 2.2 million – an incarceration rate of 716 per 100,000. China, whose human rights record is often decried by U.S. politicians, ranks second with 1.64 million people behind bars – but its rate is only 121 per 100,000 population.

In an opinion piece in the DN newspaper, prison chief Oberg said Sweden should work even harder on rehabilitating prisoners and needs to do more to help them once they return to society. Released prisoners on probation can receive treatment for substance abuse addictions and issues related to violence, and around 4,500 volunteers provide mentoring and support for former offenders.

“This year and next year the priority of our work will be with young offenders and men with convictions of violent behavior,” said Kenneth Gustafsson, the governor of Sweden’s Kumla prison. “For many years we have been running programs to help those addicted to drugs. Now we are also developing programs to address behaviors such as aggression and violence. These are the important things for our society when these people are released.

“In Sweden we believe very much in the concept of rehabilitation, without being naive of course,” he added. “There are some people who will not or cannot change. But in my experience the majority of prisoners want to change and we must do what we can to help to facilitate that. It is not always possible to achieve this in one prison sentence. Also it is not just prison that can rehabilitate – it is often a combined process involving probation and greater society. We can give education and training, but when they leave prison these people need housing and jobs.”


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