Author: Dan Gardner

In a classroom thick with wigs, sinks and barber chairs, a man sprays waterthrough a woman's sudsy hair and works his fingers carefully to rinse theshampoo. Standing in front of a large mirror, another man brushes andsprays a woman's hair. Two others discuss styling techniques.
It could be ascene from any community college, but for the bars on the windows.This is Hameenlinna Central Prison, near Helsinki. The stylist working atthe mirror is a convicted murderer. The man washing hair is a drugtrafficker. Two of the three women are also prisoners; the other is a professional hairstylist hired to teach the class.
There are no guards.This is Finland's criminal justice system at work. Here, offenders eitherserve remarkably short prison sentences or, far more commonly, no prisontime at all. Finland's incarceration rate is just 52 per 100,000 people,less than half Canada's rate of 119 per 100,000 people and a tiny fractionof the American rate of 702.
In Finland, prisoners can work or study at any education level. Outsiderelationships are fostered with frequent visits and "home leaves."Living conditions are generous by anyone's standard. At Hameenlinna, maleand female prisoners live together; occasionally they fall in love and getmarried in the little auditorium that serves as the prison chapel.
Finland's criminal justice system is, in short, a liberal's dream and aconservative's nightmare.In that, Finland is far from unique. Most Western European nations considerlarge prison populations shameful and use incarceration only as a lastresort.
What sets Finland apart is how it came to be this way: More than 30years ago, Finland made an explicit decision to abandon the country's long tradition of very tough criminal justice in favour of the Western European approach. Never before or since has a country so consciously and completelyshifted from one philosophy of justice to its opposite.
It was a grand experiment in criminal justice, and the results are in."We don't have this idea that 'hard crimes deserve hard punishment,' " saysMarkku Salminen, the director general of Finland's prisons. Mr. Salminenmight seem an unlikely advocate for liberal justice policies. Tall, fit,and sporting a classic policeman's moustache, he looks every inch the cop he was for 30 years. But in Finland even the cops are liberals.
Mr. Salminen says one reason for the consensus is geography. "In Finland,Russia is very close. We follow it very keenly."Russian criminal justice is the negative image of Finland's. The St.Petersburg region, with 5.9 million people, has 72,000 police officers -the five million people of Finland employ 8,500. Russian criminals are farmore likely to be punished with prison time, and the sentences they receive are far longer. And, in most cases, Russian convicts serve time in prisonconditions that would be considered barbaric and illegal in Finland.
The Finns also know that the two countries' crime rates are just as starkly different. In an international survey, 82 per cent of Finns said they felt safe walking alone in their neighbourhood after dark, the second highest national rating (after Sweden; both Canada and the United States scored just more than 70 per cent, placing them near the bottom of the 11 countries surveyed). Russia wasn't included in that survey, but fear of crime is widespread, and for good reason -- the murder rate in Russia is 10 times that in Finland.
"We see that there is nobody safe in Russia," says Mr. Salminen. For Finns, history makes the contrast with Russia all the more poignant. Until the First World War, Finland was a province of the Russian Empire. Crime and punishment in Finland were governed by the tough Russian justice system, a system the Finns inherited after independence.The break with Russia at the end of the First World War was followed by a terrible civil war, political unrest, and then two wars with the U.S.S.R. After 1945, peace returned, but Finland was firmly fixed within the Soviet Union's sphere of influence.
This violent history hardened Finnish attitudes toward crime and punishment. Long prison sentences in austere conditions were standard. In the 1950s, Finland's incarceration rate was 200 prisoners per 100,000people -- a normal rate for East Bloc countries such as Poland and Czechoslovakia where justice systems had been Sovietized, but four times the rate in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.In the 1960s, Finland began edging cautiously toward reform, using its Scandinavian neighbours as models.
Nils Christie, a renowned Norwegiancriminologist, recalls speaking to Finnish judges and criminologists in Helsinki in 1968. At the time, Mr. Christie and others were developing thef irst international comparisons of prison populations, so he was the first to tell the Finns that their incarceration rate was totally unlike that of their Scandinavian neighbours and was "really in the Russian tradition.
"The audience was shocked, Mr Christie recalls in an interview in Ottawa,"and some of them then decided this was not a very good policy."Discussions and debates were widespread. Ultimately, says TapioLappi-Seppala, the director of the Finnish National Research Institute of Legal Policy, an agreement was reached that "our position was a kind ofdisgrace."
During the next two decades, a long series of policy changes were implemented, all united by one goal: To reduce imprisonment, either by diverting offenders to other forms of punishment or by reducing the timeserved in prison. "It was a long-term and consistent policy," Mr.Lappi-Seppala emphasizes. "It was not just one or two law reforms. It was a coherent approach."The reforms began in earnest in the late 1960s and continued into the1990s.
In 1971, the laws allowing repeat criminals to be held indefinitely were changed to apply only to dangerous, violent offenders. The use of conditional sentences (in which offenders avoid prison if they obey certain conditions) was greatly expanded. Community service was introduced. Prisoners may be considered for parole after serving just 14 days; even those who violate parole and are returned to prison are eligible for parole again after one month. And for those who aren't paroled, there is early release: All first-time offenders are let out after serving just half their sentences, while other prisoners serve two-thirds. Mediation was also implemented, allowing willing victims and offenders to discuss if the offender can somehow set things right. "It does not replace a prison sentence," says Mr. Lappi-Seppala, but "in minor crimes, you may escape prosecution or you may get a reduction in your sentence." There are now 5,000 cases of mediation per year, almost equal to the number of imprisonments. Juvenile justice was also liberalized. Criminals aged 15 to 21 can only be imprisoned for extraordinary reasons -- and even then, they are released after serving just one-third of their time. Children under the age of 15 cannot be charged with a crime.The most serious crimes can still be punished with life sentences but these are now routinely commuted, and the prisoner released, as early as 10 years into the sentence and no longer than 15 or 16 years.
The Finns retain a power similar to Canada's "dangerous offender" law: Persons found to be repeat, serious, violent offenders with a high likelihood of committing new violent crimes can be held until they are determined to no longer be a threat to the public. There are now 80 such offenders in prison and they, like Canada's dangerous offenders, are unlikely to ever be released. One especially critical change was the creation of sentencing guidelines that set shorter norms. Similar guidelines are used in the United States, but many of those restrict judges' discretion -- Finnish judges remain free to sentence outside the norm if they feel that is appropriate.
Violence is rare in Finnish prisons. Officials credit this calm in part totheir policy of giving prisoners as much contact with other people, both inside and outside prisons, as possible. Frequent visits from family and friends are encouraged, including conjugal visits.There are also "home leaves." After serving six months, all prisoners can apply for leave to return to their home towns for periods of up to six days every four months. Only if a prisoner is considered likely to re-offend, or is misbehaving, is he likely to be turned down. Home leaves have been controversial in Finland, particularly when violent offenders are allowed out, but the authorities insist the program is both successful and necessary. Ninety per cent of home leaves occur without even minor difficulties. And by allowing prisoners the chance to live briefly in the real world, home leaves strengthen relationships and help prevent the atrophy of basic social skills.
"Prisoners must have contact with the civil world," insists Ms. Toivonen.Officials also try to build new relationships between prisoners and people on the outside by bringing in volunteers, who may join group discussions or even visit prisoners in their cells. The goal, says Mr. Aaltonen, is that"everybody has some close connection with somebody -- some person outside,whether it is a wife or husband, social worker, friend, voluntary worker from the church or Red Cross. It is very important that everybody should have somebody waiting for him."
If prisons don't encourage these relationships, says Mr. Aaltonen, released convicts will be met on the outside "by a gang or friends involved in crime." Finland's extensive use of parole and early release also creates transition periods in which released prisoners are supervised while they try to get established in legitimate society. Before and after release, the authorities help ex-cons get jobs and homes.
Thanks to Hollywood, North Americans imagine prisoners are released with little more than a bus ticket and a shake of the warden's hand. In theUnited States, and to a lesser extent Canada, there's some truth in that. But in Finland, no prisoner is simply walked out the penitentiary gate. That was the experiment.
According to the "tough on crime" theory, what Finland did was monumentally foolish. And a superficial reading of the data appears to prove this school right. From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, crime in Finland rose sharply while imprisonment declined rapidly,s uggesting that by going "soft" Finland fostered crime.
But crime also rose in every other country in the developed world(including Canada and the United States), regardless of these country's criminal justice policies. The reasons are complex. One factor: the post-war baby boom produced a huge bulge in the young males who are always responsible for most crime. More important and lasting was the rapid urbanization of the era since the social restrictions that control behaviour in rural environments are often weaker or non-existent in cities.
So Finland's experience has to be judged relative to other comparable countries. In doing that, Mr. Lappi-Seppala explains, the absolute numbers of crimes aren't important -- crime data usually cannot be compared internationally because each country uses different definitions and reporting standards.
What matters are the trends.Mr. Lappi-Seppala compared Finland's crime rates going back many decades with Sweden and Norway and discovered "the trends are basically identical in each of the countries. So despite the fact that we had radically different prison policies, our crime trends went hand-in-hand with the other countries."When Finland took a hard-line approach, its crime trends were identical to those of its liberal neighbours. And when it switched to a liberal system its trends continued in line with its neighbours. Ultimately, Finland's choices about how to punish crime had little or no effect on the crime rate.
Mr. Lappi-Seppala produces a chart that compares the number of robberies in Finland with the average sentence given for that crime. In the decade before 1965, judges cut the length of the average robbery sentence in half with no effect on the number of robberies. Then from 1965 to 1990, the sentences for robbery stayed about the same -- while robberies first grew by five times, then dropped by a quarter, then doubled, then dropped by almost half again. There is simply no correlation between the punishment inflicted and the number of robberies.
Juvenile crime is another case in point. The astonishingly liberal approachFinland implemented for juvenile crime -- no one under 15 can be charged,and offenders between 15 and 21 are rarely incarcerated -- did not spark an increase in juvenile crime. Over the last 20 years, the proportion of crime for which young offenders are responsible has even declined.
After more than 30 years, the Finnish experiment has produced clear conclusions: High incarceration rates and tough prison conditions do not control crime. They are unnecessary. If a nation wishes, it can send few offenders to prison, and make those prisons humane, without sacrificing the public's safety.For those interested in building a less punitive society, the benefits of such an approach are obvious. But there are also more quantifiable returns.
Mr. Lappi-Seppala notes that, by one estimate, Finland's smaller prison population has saved the country's taxpayers $200 million over the last 20 years. Then there is Finland's bounty of time. About 6,500 years of human life was saved from incarceration. Some 40,000 people avoided prison altogether. Finland's reforms meant that this time was instead spent with families and communities, a contribution whose value is surely great, if incalculable.
Mr. Salminen takes obvious pride in this record and hopes other countries draw lessons from it. He has visited Canadian prisons and, in many ways, he admires our system, particularly our rehabilitation programs. One such program is now the subject of a trial in Finland."But at the same time," he notes, "there is a whole lot of Americanization." That worries Mr. Salminen, who, like all Finnish justice officials, thinks the wave of "tough on crime" policies in the UnitedStates is folly. If Canada goes further in the American direction, he warns, "you get the American problems, too."Mr. Salminen's English may be slightly fractured but he speaks with a quiet, clear sincerity. The cop-turned-jailer insists, "You should do in Canada your own system"
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Pubdate: Mon, 18 Mar 2002Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)Copyright: 2002 The Ottawa CitizenContact: letters@thecitizen.southam.caWebsite: Dan GardnerNote: From the Citizen's on-going series, Crime and Punishment.Bookmark: (Incarceration


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