The growing cost of crime and punishment

October 27th, 2012

This article is more than 11 years old.

Prison sentences are tougher than they have ever been, but as space and money run out, some question if staying tough on crime is the right path

Negotiations surrounding funding for Kriminalforsorgen, the nation’s prison and probation system, got underway this week. Opinions on the direction of the troubled system swung from continuing the current policy of ever-tougher sanctions to allowing certain minor offenders to avoid time behind bars by having a chat with their victims.

The justice minister, Morten Bødskov (Socialdemokraterne), is in the first camp and wants to continue the current policy of tougher and longer sentences for serious lawbreakers.  

A new memo from the Justice Ministry’s research office shows that violent criminals spend significantly more time behind bars than they did just ten years ago.

In 2001, the average sentence for simple assault was 69 days. That increased to an average of 90 days in 2011. Sentences for most violent infractions have increased across the board.

“We cannot live in violence,” Bødskov said in a statement. “Violence creates insecurity in society, so the punishments must be tough.”
Bødskov stressed that prevention must work hand in hand with punishment in order to reduce crime.

“Violent crime is falling and the number of domestic violence cases being reported is now lower than in 2003,” he said.  

Karina Lorentzen, the legal spokesperson for coalition partner the Socialistisk Folkeparti (SF), said the main challenge was to find a way to combat overcrowding in the country’s prisons. Lorentzen said that stiffer penalties should not be imposed unless a clear plan for how to fund them was included.

“The government must tackle the problem of overcrowded prisons,” Lorentzen told Berlingske newspaper. “We will, of course, discuss longer sentences, but we must also demand accountability.”

By next year, there will be 320 more prisoners than available spaces in the nation’s jails. That number will rise to 460 in 2016 according to the Justice Ministry. In many prisons, two inmates are already crammed into cells meant to house only one.

“The pressure is intense,” Peter North, the warden of Copenhagen’s Vestre Fængsel prison, told Berlingske. “We are not prepared for it, and it stresses the entire organisation.”

While all of the parties involved in the negotiations agree that prisons are busting at the seams, there is little agreement on how to solve the problem.

Far-left party Enhedslisten (EL) proposed easing the pressure by allowing some criminals to avoid jail time by participating in a mediation in which they sit down and meet their victim.

“People convicted of simple assault are being put in jail,” EL spokesperson Pernille Skipper told Politiken newspaper. “We propose that if they meet their victim, they be given a suspended sentence or probation.”

Skipper said that the proposal would help victims get on with their lives and reduce overcrowding.

Mediation is currently available, but it does not replace prison time.

Skipper stressed that the process must be agreed to by both sides of the crime.

“The perpetrator must be motivated, and no victims should be forced to engage in mediation,” she said. “It is the voluntary nature of the process that makes it effective.”

Representatives from Venstre (V) and Danske Folkeparti (DF) said that efforts and money would be better spent cracking down on lawlessness inside the prisons and sending foreign criminals back to their home countries.

Too many prisoners, too few staff

Seven out of ten prison guards say that they are ill-equipped to handle the current flood of inmates. Many guards refuse to confront prisoners on the inside out of fear that gang members will take revenge on their family members on the outside. William Rentzmann, the director general of Kriminalforsorgen, admitted that there is a problem.

“We have too few employees,” he told DR News.

Drugs and mobile phones are smuggled to inmates in socks, shampoo bottles and body cavities or tossed over prison walls so inmates can collect the contraband the next time they are out for a bit of exercise.

In 2011, officials at state and local prisons found nearly 3,000 illegal mobile phones and confiscated marijuana from the same number of inmates. Nearly ten percent of the nearly 37,000 drug tests on prisoners last year were positive.

Prison officials said that inmates use mobile phones to continue their criminal activities and threaten people on the outside.

Some of the representatives involved in the budget talks are calling for greater control over both inmates and their visitors.

Currently, it is against the rules for guards at open prisons to frisk visitors and inmates. Those regulations earned a reprimand for a guard at one prison who found a 100 gram lump of hashish stashed in a visitor’s pocket. The guard had violated the rules by patting the pocket.

Tom Behnke, a Konservative (K) spokesperson, said the rules must be changed.

“When we go to the football game, our pockets are checked, when we get on a plane, our pockets are checked, but if you visit a criminal, you can just walk right in,” Behnke told Politiken.

Peter Skaarup from DF called the rules “totally stupid”.

But Skipper laid the blame for the current prison problems partially at DF’s feet.

“Venstre and DF increased penalties aimlessly,” Skipper told Politiken. “That put more people in prison and created unacceptable conditions for both inmates and staff.” Skipper said the SF call to tie punishment to funding was “sensible and logical”.

The funding suggestion also received high praise from prison staff.

“We think it’s a great idea,” John Hatting, the head of Kriminalforsorgsforeningen, the national prison association, told Berlingske. “A reasonable politician follows up on their proposals with the money to make them work.”

Hatting said that until now the prison system has been used as a “political playing field where politicians propose anything and everything” without the money to back it up.

The union representing uniformed prison staff, Dansk Fængselsforbund, also at least partially welcomed the proposal.

Kim Østerbye of Dansk Fængselsforbund said that although he felt the funding proposal was a “really, really good idea”, he also felt SF was just playing politics.

“I do not think SF is in favour of raising penalties, so I do not think we will see any more money,”  Østerbye told Politiken.

Karsten Lauritzen, a V spokesperson, told Politiken that he disagreed with the concept of tying punishment to funding.

“You risk putting lawmakers in a situation where they, for example, want to impose tougher punishments on paedophiles, but can not find the money,” he said. “I would not want to be the one to explain something that distasteful to the parents of a child who is the victim of an assault.”


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