Doug Saunders

Hurt the criminal or hurt the crime?

The Globe and Mail

Doug Saunders (Randy Quan for The Globe and Mail)

If a neighbourhood kid grabs you on the street, slashes you with a knife and steals your wallet, once you get over the pain, the rage, the fear and the police bureaucracy, you’ll probably want him sent to prison.

But what sort of prison? That’s where you, as a victim, confront the question that most countries face today: Correction or revenge? Do you want to hurt the criminal, or do you want to hurt crime?

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So ask yourself. Would you want him to do time in Norway’s Halden Fengsel, possibly the best prison in the world?

Halden, completed two years ago, is a nicer place than the homes that many of its inmates come from. There are comfortable cells with flat-screen TVs, Ikea-style wood furniture and mini-fridges, teaching kitchens, music studios and excellent libraries, two-storey houses for lengthy visits with partners and children, guards who don’t carry weapons and share meals and sports with the inmates – a great many of them murderers and rapists.

Prisoners are locked in their cells between 8:30 p.m. and 7:30 a.m., but are otherwise expected to be engaged in classes, treatment programs and prison-yard jobs. “If you have very few activities, your prisoners become more aggressive,” prison governor Are Høidal told The Guardian this week.

Despite the seriousness of their crimes and their deprived backgrounds, the inmates rarely fight. They do have incentives: If they misbehave, they can get sent to a less enjoyable “closed” prison, like the one that will house anti-immigration terrorist Anders Breivik.

Mr. Høidal has explained in earlier interviews that revenge and suffering have no place in the Norwegian prison system. “We want to build them up, give them confidence through education and work and have them leave as better people.”

Does that make you feel all warmhearted and hopeful for the kid who disfigured you? Are you yearning to give him the chance to become a better person? Probably not. There’s a good chance it infuriates you. Especially when you learn that it’s costing more money to keep him in this luxe prison than you earn in a year.

But consider this: Fewer than one in five prisoners in Halden will commit another serious crime after being released. In Canada, the United States and Britain, the rate is more like three in five.

We know exactly why Norway has such lower recidivism numbers. Prisoners, being under constant observation, are very easy to study, and they’ve been studied like mad. Cambridge University criminologist Friedrich Lösel recently compared scores of studies in a dozen countries and found they reached almost identical conclusions.

He found that what causes prisoners to reoffend at lower rates, everywhere, is basic education, vocational and employability programs, anger management and therapy while behind bars (or, in Norway, no bars). On the other hand, things that cause prisoners to reoffend more after release include longer sentences, strict discipline, deterrent “shock incarceration” programs and regular sanctions (such as withdrawal of privileges).

In other words, we have a stark choice: We can punish people more, or we can reduce crime more. One cancels out the other. Sadly, though, it is a sense of anger and vengeance that motivates policy decisions in most countries these days.

Britain, for example, launched a legal bid this week to continue its ban on prisoners voting in elections. This makes no sense. Imprisonment is the removal of one important right – mobility and thus physical freedom – but it is not a removal of citizenship. Yet the desire to make life worse for prisoners, even in such petty ways, overwhelmed larger interests.

And Britain is relatively sane. In the United States, prisons often ban most reading material, just one prisoner in 10 is given any training, more than 20,000 are kept in solitary confinement and most face what Human Rights Watch calls “wanton staff brutality and degrading treatment of inmates.” Studies all show that the U.S. has among the world’s highest reoffending rates.

Canada, unfortunately, is headed in the wrong direction. Despite having the lowest crime rates – including violent crime – in more than four decades, its most recent crime bill shuns rehabilitation and includes most of the ingredients for higher reoffending rates.

Our taste for revenge is costing us our safety. It’s also costing us money: Dr. Lösel finds that every $1 spent on prison rehabilitation programs saves $7 in future policing, legal and penal costs.

As someone who’s been mugged once and burgled three times in recent years, I can tell you that I’d rather feel safer than avenged. Sadly, my neighbours are choosing otherwise.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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