When Kai Lundstrøm Pedersen got arrested in the US earlier this year on child sex charges, he immediately asked to serve his sentence in Denmark. In addition to wanting to be on home soil and close to those who might still want to associate with him, the 61-year-old computer technician also knew that in the US he was facing a 30-year sentence. In Denmark, however, the same crime would probably only earn him about six years in prison.
If the difference between the two sentences sounds drastic, the best way to understand it might be to start with the principle that guides correctional facilities here: “Support and motivate convicts, through personally focused social work and educational development, to live a crime-free existence.” That often entails sentences geared at resocialising convicts and preparing them for a life after prison – or at least it did prior to 2001 and the election of a centre-left government with a get-tough-on-crime mindset.
Although the justice minister, Morten Bødskov, promised this week to continue to be as tough on crime as the previous government was, the reality is that it has already begun to shift back to a philosophy that is more likely to view criminals as people who made bad choices, than simply as bad people.
Already before the election, the government campaigned on a softer approach to crime, and earlier this year it returned the minimum age of criminal responsibility back to 15 after it was lowered to 14 by the previous government in 2010.
More telling about this government’s approach to criminality was that in connection with the same law change, it also changed how young people could be punished. While the previous government removed the eight-year maximum sentence for young offenders, the new law makes it possible to give them ankle monitors. That, at least in theory, would make it possible for young convicts to continue to get an education and engage in other activities that could put them on the right track.
No-one wants to see criminals get off too easily, and we know that even the best intentioned ideas can go wrong, such as in the case of the job training programme that included an inmate whose victim had trouble getting the rehabilitation she needed. On the other hand, keeping people behind bars unnecessarily is not only costly, it also risks turning people who could have been rehabilitated into hardened criminals.