Norway just sentenced Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in a mass shooting/bombing, to the maximum punishment allowable under Norwegian law: 21 years in prison.
Why? Because Norway operates on a different philosophy of punishment than the U.S. does. It's called restorative justice -- the philosophy that the criminal justice system should repair the harms of crime for victims, society, and the criminal, too. Max Fisher takes a shot (no pun intended) at understanding Norway's philosophy in a thought-provoking article in The Atlantic. Fisher explains how the U.S. is different, and why we might be inclined to call Norwegians crazy:
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.But over at The Nation, Liliana Segura takes issue with Fisher's take on the virtues of America's supposed (and that is the key word) devotion to retributive justice. We may have a retributive system, but do our punishments really fit their crimes?
To be fair, Fisher is not talking about US-style drug sentencing—or sentencing as it exists on the ground here at all. But he should have, because the fact that there are nonviolent drug offenders serving the same amount of time as convicted murderers in the United States is rooted in a Frankenstein version of the very retributive model he is writing about. The War on Drugs was ostensibly designed to harshly punish those responsible for massive harm to our communities (while in practice, ensnaring low-level offenders who harm no one, except possibly themselves). Mandatory sentencing statutes, supposedly devised to fulfill a retributive ideal, have instead tied the hands of judges when it comes to imposing fair, proportionate sentences, leading to systemic perversions of justice. ...
Even if you agree that Breivik’s twenty-one-year-sentence in a “three-room cell” with a TV, etc., is a grossly inadequate way of dealing with his barbaric actions, the notion that a retribution-based system hands out sentences that “fit the crime” is wildly and tragically false if the United States is your guide. In the United States, grandmothers are sentenced to life for first-time drug offenses. Mothers who fire a “warning shot” in self-defense at an abusive husband get twenty years in prison. Teenagers who kill their abusive pimp get sentenced to life without parole. Kids who commit crimes at 14 have been condemned to die in prison—getting raped along the way—with no consideration for their age, mental health or abusive upbringing. People land on death row for failing to anticipate that an accomplice in a crime might kill someone—and people are executed for killings committed by others who then go free. The American model—which Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently summed up by musing, “I thought that modern penology has abandoned that rehabilitation thing”—is a system rife with injustice.The odd thing is that Norway's restorative justice model has produced a country with low levels of crime, prison costs, and recidivism. And even Breivik's victims support it:
Norwegians, of course, including survivors and their family members, seem to have widely accepted Breivik’s sentence, suggesting that the system has actually fulfilled their desire for justice and fairness (a fact Fisher acknowledges and finds “jarring”). “That’s how it should work,” one survivor of the massacre said of the sentence. “That’s staying true to our principles and the best evidence that he hasn’t changed society.”On a train in Boston this weekend, I overheard some people criticizing Breivik's sentence. Perhaps they're right to do so. But I didn't hear them offer any criticism of people serving even longer than Breivik in the U.S. for crimes with no victims, no deaths, and no property destruction.
Which makes me ask yet again: Who is the real source of support for harsh sentencing laws in the U.S.?
The problem is us.