The call for tougher punishment of offenders is heard everywhere in Europe. Well not entirely! In Norway a different wind is blowing. This became clear during the expert meeting Approaches to Drugs and Alcohol Abuse in Prisons & Probation. At this CEP event, held in February in Sofia, Bulgaria, Deputy Director General at the Norwegian Ministry of Justice Andreas Skulberg held two remarkable presentations. “We have decided to move away from strictly punitive sentences toward alternatives that emphasize the health and economic situation of an offender”.
This event was the third expert meeting held in the framework of the EU-funded project STARR, which stands for Strengthening Transnational Approaches to Reducing Re-offending. STARR aims to identify What Works in reducing offending and re-offending. Whilst the project addresses this question in a way applicable to all offence types, it focuses on three priority areas of anti-social behavior.
The Norwegian approach
Each priority area formed the topic for a European expert meeting. After the expert meetings on youth crime (in Budapest ) and domestic violence (Paris), the Sofia expert meeting focused drugs and alcohol-related crime. Andreas Skulberg was invited to present the Norwegian strategy on dealing with this group of offenders. “The length of about 70% of prison sentences is less than 3 months, which contributes to an incarceration rate of 71 per 100.000”, he starts. “The low rate is partially achieved by offering alternative sentences. We are lucky that our government has recognized the fact that alternative sentences are successful in reducing re-offending, that they are more cost-effective than prison and that they are a humane solution to making the community more safe. Just locking people up is counterproductive because it deprives a person of the chance to develop themselves”.
As such probation sentences play a significant role in Norway because during the prison sentence there is little time to work with the prisoner. “We are convinced that the best way of dealing with addicted offenders is to help them to solve their problems. Therefore, after their release, offenders are offered an individually tailored set of support. In our social service system, organisations coming under various ministries and local institutions work together to assist them in finding a house, a job, debt assistance, physical and mental health care and so on. This local element in this process is very important as this ensures closer ties to the community and stimulates rehabilitation successfully,” says Andreas Skulberg.
Learning in Sofia
The Norwegian approach was an eye-opener for many of the experts present. But also Andreas Skulberg had lots to learn from the 3rd STARR expert meeting. “The presentation of Judge Françoise Guyot from France about dealing with drugs and alcohol users was particularly useful. We are currently reshaping our services and her story confirmed our strategy. For example, we have a pilot in two cities with a drug court. In this court, a first-time offender with drug problems will not be prosecuted for a fine or a prison sentence, but for an alternative sentence without a permanent record. The emphasis is on providing a comprehensive approach for resettlement of the offender. The success rate is about 40 to 50%. The French already have a few years of experience with this system, so it is very valuable to learn from their experiences for the further development of our drug courts. For me, it is this sharing of best practices and experiences that makes STARR such a useful and topical project.”