Norway’s Justice System

By Max Fisher:

As an American, or maybe just as a moral human being, it’s hard not to feel appalled, even outraged, that Norwegian far-right monster Anders Breivik only received 21 years in prison for his attacks last year, including a bombing in Oslo and a cold-blooded shooting spree, which claimed 77 lives. That’s just under 100 days per murder. The decision, reached by the court’s five-member panel, was unanimous. He will serve out his years (which can be extended) in a three-room cell with a TV, exercise room, and “Ikea-style furniture.” The New York Times quoted a handful of survivors and victims’ relatives expressing relief and satisfaction at the verdict. It’s not a scientific survey, but it’s still jarring to see Norwegians welcoming this light sentence.

Norway’s criminal justice system is, obviously, quite distinct from that of, say, the U.S.; 21 years is the maximum sentence for anything less severe than war crimes or genocide. Still, it’s more than that: the entire philosophy underpinning their system is radically different. I don’t have an answer for which is better. I doubt anyone does. But Americans’ shocked response to the Breivik sentence hints at not just how different the two systems are, but how deeply we may have come to internalize our understanding of justice, which, whatever its merits, doesn’t seem to be as universally applied as we might think.
The American justice system, like most of those in at least the Western world, is built on an idea called retributive justice. In very simplified terms (sorry, I’m not a legal scholar), it defines justice as appropriately punishing someone for an act that’s harmful to society. Our system does include other ideas: incapacitating a criminal from committing other crimes, rehabilitating criminals to rejoin society, and deterring other potential criminals. At its foundation, though, retributive justice is about enforcing both rule of law and more abstract ideas of fairness and morality. Crimes are measured by their damage to society, and it’s society that, working through the court system, metes out in-turn punishment. Justice is treated as valuable and important in itself, not just for its deterrence or incapacitative effects. In a retributive system, the punishment fits the crime, and 21 years in a three-room cell doesn’t come close to fitting Breivik’s 77 premeditated murders.
Norway doesn’t work that way. Although Breivik will likely be in prison permanently — his sentence can be extended — 21 years really is the norm even for very violent crimes. Themuch-studied Norwegian system is built on something called restorative justice. Proponents of this system might argue that it emphasizes healing: for the victims, for the society, and, yes, for the criminal him or herself. Sounds straightforward enough, but you might notice that there’s nothing in there about necessarily punishing the criminal, and in fact even takes his or her needs into account.
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  • In an interview on NPR with a Norwegian journalist, when asked how they can be satisfied with this verdict the answer was — now hear this loud and clear — “we’re a civilized people.” They were horrified by the murders but as a nation wanted to make sure that it didn’t change the way they viewed their country and system. In other words, they don’t want to be like uncivilized Americans. That should say something to us!!

  • Piper has a blog post that suggests that Norway has a lower value on human life because of this sentence.

  • Challies also posted about Piper’s post, which has lead to a number of comments that seem to suggest to me that there is a wide difference of understanding about what the purpose of a justice system is.

  • Kristen

    #2 Adam — I’ve heard that too, from the pulpit of my own church shortly following the shootings. That attitude seems so 100% upside down and backwards that I can hardly wrap my mind around it.

    But I am 1/8 Norwegian so maybe that explains it? (Probably not.)

  • The Scandinavian criminal justice system seems to me a strong example of a “post-Christian” institution – it still holds onto the sentiments of redemption, restoration, and forgiveness (I don’t think we can trace those ideals to the viking era); but wants to see those sentiments played out within “this world, this physical life” scale of time.

  • Pat Pope

    I agree, Bob. I think it says something about a people that doesn’t take the “throw the book at him” mentality. Now don’t get me wrong, I was surprised by the sentence as well, but I would hope that we could one day reach that place, but it takes more than light sentences. It also takes really turning our prisons into places of rehabilitation and not just warehouses for criminals. The scary thing about this case is that right now, Breivik is unrepentant and is it possible that in 21 years he would come out just ready to do more damage? Only time will tell, but I pray that in those 21 years he has a change of heart.

  • @Kaleb, those values are the same values that were a part of the US prison reform movement of the 19th and 20th centuries. And that movement was clearly Christian.

  • @Adam, 7 – Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think I am in agreement with you. I am attributing those values (redemption, restoration, and forgiveness) as carry-overs from an era when Christianity played a more significant role in Scandinavian culture. I would not be surprised to find them in a US prison reform movement, flavored by Christianity.

  • James E.

    Doesn’t C. S. Lewis talk somewhere about “justice” systems that say not “we will punish you as your crimes deserve and then release you” but “we will keep you locked up until you exhibit attitudes that we deem healthy”? Is that in The Abolition of Man?

  • Anna

    Adam Shields is correct. The US prison reform movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries — largely supported by Christians such as Quakers — was indeed about restorative justice.

  • Harald Solheim

    I’m from Norway and a bit annoyed with foreign journalists who don’t make the effort to understand what kind of sentence Breivik got. It is correct that the Norwegian justice is more focused on restoration than retribution, but retribution does play a part in Norway too. A prison sentence is punishment for a crime.

    For a regular prison sentence the maximum time is 21 years in Norway. What most foreign commentators fail to notice is that Breivik did not get a regular prison sentence. Breivik got a 21 year “detention” sentence which means that when his 21 years is over he will be kept in prison for as long as he is deemed a threat to society. All law experts in Norway expect Breivik to stay in prison most, if not all, of the rest of his life.

  • Patrick

    IF restorative justice= short sentences for violent criminals, then it places innocents at the whims of the beastly who have previously demonstrated conduct that should be unfathomable for a normal human.

    Not sure that’s what God desires us to do. Do we demonstrate love both to the criminally innocent and the violent guilty by allowing the guilty quicker access to the innocent?

    Just makes no logic at all. If that’s “civilized”, who wants to be responsible for the next rape or murder this civilized action allows?

  • pepy

    I read an article that stated that 21 years is the max, but there could be extensions to this when the time came: “…Such sentences can be extended as long as an inmate is considered too dangerous to be released, and legal experts say Breivik will almost certainly spend the rest of his life in prison.”

  • Harald Solheim

    @Pat Pope: Breivik will stay in prison as long as there is reason to believe that he is “ready to do more damage”. That is the sentence he got.

  • Kristen

    Okay I read Piper’s post. I don’t think it holds together.

    He starts off saying that human life is cheap in Norway because this sentence is too light.

    And then he goes on to refer to C.S. Lewis saying that if we divorce justice and retribution from the corrections system it is absolutely rife for abuse. What is to stop me from doing just about anything to you when after all it’s “for your own good.” And when would enough be enough? How do we even understand that concept of “enough” if we’re not talking about retribution?

    (This happens when people are found not guilty by reason of insanity (which is a rare finding indeed but that’s another conversation) and end up being confined in a hospital for far longer than the prison sentence would have been if they had just been convicted of the crime. Is something wrong with this picture?)

    In this analysis, including retribution is important not because we “better make sure punishment is ENOUGH!” but “better make sure it’s not too much!”

    Lewis makes a very cogent point here. But it seems to be an entirely different point than where Piper started, that this lenient sentence shows Norway holds life cheap.

  • Jeremy

    I find it odd that we criticize Norway for a sentence that all relevant parties feel is sufficient. The families, the community and the law are satisfied.

    Also, yeah, very poor understanding of Norwegian law…the sentence is essentially Life with possibility of parole in 21 years. Good luck with that one, Breivek.

  • Pat Pope

    Thanks for the clarification, Harold.

  • Nathan

    I find the sanctimony around this not a little bit grating.
    The embrace and celebration of retribution by sinful humans, who are themselves under judgement, is nothing more than another proof of the sinfulness of those that celebrate.

    Even Lewis called for sadness and deep regret when one punishes a criminal. This kind of circumspection is non-existent in the critiques of Norway.

    Given the disproportionate levels of incarceration in our country, I would suggest we turn our polemics posing as theology there. But that would mean forsaking the captivity religion of American exceptionalism and mistaking late modern bourgeois social respectability for the essential content of genuine Christian identity.

  • Kristen

    Me #15. Ahem. Such a system could be ripe for abuse. Or possibly rife with abuse. But not rife for abuse.

    Okay, now that I’ve corrected that, carry on!

  • Tracy

    Here’s the thing, if I had to GUESS what Piper would say, I’d say he he hates the Norwegian justice system. And I’d be right. The man seems to love the idea of hell too — coincidence?

    I wonder why we don’t do the “by your fruits you will know them” test. Which country has fewer murders? Less violence? Which country has a higher standrd of living? A a greater sense of life satisfaction? A more supportive social safety net?

    In all of these cases, the answer would be Norway. Because they don’t value life as much as we do?! I don’t see how we can take Piper seriously.

    When we throw people in jail in the US, we throw them into hell on earth. Rape, violence, drugs — and these things exist because we tolerate them in our prisons, we tolerate overcrowded, poorly staffed, hell-holes — which overuse solitary confinement, are fast cutting all educational opportunities, are located in hinterlands which cut people off from their families — there is simply no way to use the words “American Justice System” and “Christian” in the same sentence.

  • Robin

    How is it that even a post in which Scot doesn’t mention Piper once turns into a comment section that spends 90% of its effort dealing with something Piper said somewhere else??

    Given what Scot actually posted, I think we are talking about a distinction without a difference. They gave him 21 years with the possibility of adding more, and everyone agrees he will serve all or most of his natural life in jail. We give life sentences to people like Charles Manson but include a possibility of parole. In the end, both countries keep the truly violent and dangerous in jail. I really don’t see the difference.

  • Stu

    let’s be clear about piper: he regards this as a “smack on the hand”. even given the “3 in a three-cell suite of rooms equipped with exercise equipment, a television and a laptop” situation, i’d like to see anyone, yes anyone, do 21 years of that and not feel punished. let’s also be clear that the laptop won’t be unmonitored.

    don’t we think that 21 years is a long time to be isolated? we who have not been in prison have no idea what ‘being in prison’ is like at all. we need to accept that. incarceration is no holiday. the loss of liberty (liberty that many of us squander on fast food and tv every day) is a harrowing spectre. I’ve no idea how much that would screw with my head.

    best we call it ‘cabin fever’ for 21 years and then some. isn’t that bald isolation from society all that we’d want as ‘punishment’? any more punishment is as civil as his most uncivilised intent.

  • Nathan


    This thread isn’t about Piper. There’s two comments about his article. Two.

    The initial comments by Adam letting us know he even wrote one doesn’t really count, and I can’t see how subsequent comments are a discussion about Piper. Kristens comment in 4 cites her own experience with similar pulpit pronouncements from other people and then the convo goes into the ideas of restoration and retribution which the Fisher article. Her comment isn’t really about Piper.

    2 comments #15 and 20 directly comment on Piper and as far as I can see no one is actually engaging those comments. My own comment is generally about my experience and percption of the defaukt commitments of evangelicals in this country. Not Piper. So I don’t understand the sensitivity.

    And even if this whole thread was some long extended reflection on yet another moment when Piper feels it necessary to comment about some situation, why would it be a problem?

    I mean, you reap what you sow.
    when you position yourself as a professional opinionator, you’re inviting deserved scrutiny in return. In fact, he doesn’t get nearly enough of the pushback he deserves, IMO.

    It seems that many of his supporters would prefer that we would all just lay down and receive his ex cathedra pronouncements with all quietness and gratitude.

  • Nathan

    Now there’s three with Stu’s comment.

    So three out of 23.

  • Dave

    If the article is correct about our internalizing concepts of justice that may not be universal, I wonder how this may, if at all, apply to how people understand justice theologically?

  • Kenny Johnson

    I’m a quarter Norwegian (2 of my great-grandparents are from Norway) and I still had the knee-jerk reaction to hear “21 years.” And I’m someone who thinks we need to reform our justice system to include more restorative justice. But after considering it, I think my reaction wasn’t so much “He won’t suffer nearly enough” as much as it was fear that he would be released. After reading that he can still be kept in prison if he’s considered a threat to society, I feel like this a fair sentence. As someone else said, it’s essentially life in prison with possibility of parole after 21 years. Though, to be honest, that’s still a “light” sentence by U.S. standards.

  • Right now our US prison system is mostly a way to get people elected and score dollars for private prison companies. It’s not at all about rehabilitation or re-integrating with society.

    Recidivism is sky-high here, we imprison more people as a % of our population than any other industrialized nation, and most criminals come out of jail more hardened and worse suited for civilized life than when they went in.

    I say, if anyone’s prison system displays a low value on human life, it’s ours.

  • Patrick

    Our system displays a higher value to vulnerable innocent folks than the Norwegian model.

    I don’t see violent criminals as demeaned or hated when the innocent are protected from them by incarceration or execution myself. They make their decisions and justice sometimes follows them even on earth.

  • I’ve grown increasingly skeptical that there is any reason that a government (or any human) should actively and intentionally engage in retributive justice. It is telling that Piper’s (who in normal conversation quotes verses left of right) defense of government sponsored retributive justice completely lacks any Biblical quotes or backing. Rom 13 indicates that God may use a government for retribution, just as He may use natural diseases or illnesses, but no more mandates a government to take up that cause than does he mandate us to inflict others with disasters or illness. “Vengeance is mine”, says the Lord, and to take vengeance/retribution into our hands, whether through private or public means, sure seems like theft or treason to God’s sole authority to me.
    As a servant of God for good, government can and should serve its society by enforcing deterrent justice (and restorative, I suppose). 21 years does seem light to me, even for deterrent justice, but that is more of an empirical question rather than an ethical or Biblical question.
    The irony of part of Piper’s argument is that if we eliminate retributive justice there will be no objective standards for punishment. In fact the opposite is true. Appropriate levels of deterrent justice can be objectively measured through research and evidence what deterring effect is afforded through marginal increases in sentences. Retributive judgement is clearly declared to belong to God, and God alone; we simply don’t have the facilities or necessary information to make any type of objective determination of correct retribution levels.

  • PJ Anderson

    Someone wisely has noted: “Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’s understanding.”

    All justice is punitive, only grace is restorative. When we fail to properly differentiate we do harm to the reality of craven sin.