Learning from other countries

Learning from other countries


Scotland, and England and Wales, have the highest imprisonment rates in Western Europe (133 per 100,000 people in Scotland and 130 in England and Wales, compared to 93 in France, 69 in Germany and 54 in Norway; Northern Ireland has 73).

The World Justice Project’s 2020 Rule of Law Index ranked the UK as having the 12 most effective criminal justice system in the world, although the UK scored comparatively poorly (25 worldwide, and 0.56 out of a maximum score of 1) on an indicator measuring whether the ‘correctional system is effective in reducing criminal behaviour’, less than the regional average of 0.61 and much lower than top-scoring countries like Norway (0.91), Singapore (0.87) and Finland (0.86).


British prisons are often compared unfavourably to those in Scandinavia, where good design is not just expected for the domestic home, but extends to the building of new prisons as well. For example, officials at Storstrøm Prison in Denmark, which opened in 2017, described itas a “modern, humane, high-security prison that uses architecture to promote prisoners’ social rehabilitation”. Like Halden Prison in Norway, Storstrøm holds 250 men in buildings that are configured to form a small urban community – with streets, squares and centrally located community buildings.

The Norwegian system is based on rehabilitation rather than on punishment, considering the criminal as a symptom of a ‘diseased’ environment. It seeks to rehabilitate people by normalising their circumstances, for example by building prisons that resemble life on the outside as closely as possible. It places low-level offenders in open prisons, with minimal security and more freedoms and responsibilities, while more serious offenders are sent to more secure closed prisons, creating a separation between minor and more hardened criminals. Norway has a policy of one prisoner per cell. All prisons in Norway offer education, drug treatment, mental health and training programmes, and after release there is an emphasis on helping offenders reintegrate into society, with access to active labour market programmes set up to help ex-convicts to find a job and to access a variety of social support services such as housing, social assistance and disability insurance. The Norwegian prison system is successful in increasing participation in job training programmes, encouraging employment, and discouraging crime, largely due to changes in the behaviour of individuals who were not working prior to incarceration. The Norwegian prison system spends almost double the amount per inmate per year compared to other Western European countries, but these high rehabilitation expenditures are more than offset by the corresponding benefits to society: a reduction in criminal justice system expenditures (including police department and criminal court costs) due to fewer crimes being committed, increased employment resulting in higher taxes paid and lower welfare payments, and reduced victimisation costs due to fewer crimes being committed in the future. However, one logistical side effect of this approach is a lack of cells, which has forced Norway to send some prisoners to prisons in the Netherlands in recent years.

Alternatives to prison

The Centre for Social Justice points out that many countries have introduced successful alternatives to imprisonment in recent years. Israel introduced community service in 1987. The Netherlands introduced community service in 1989 to reduce the use of short-term imprisonment. Sweden used conditional custodial sentences and community service for many years before introducing Radio Frequency Electronic Monitoring in 1994. France introduced Electronic Monitoring in 1997 instead of shorter prison sentences. Australia introduced the Community Correctional Order in 2012. Northern Ireland is rolling out the Enhanced Combination Order as an alternative to short prison sentences.