By Ingeborg Jenssen Sandbukt, MSc
Three years ago, then Norwegian Minister of Justice, Sylvi Listhaug, appeared in the media stating that “In my opinion, if you rape a child, you are a monster”. This statement created discussion and social media exploded with comments, many in support of her frankness. A fair amount of the comments held negative attitudes towards people convicted of sexual offenses and served as examples of how they are a stigmatized group that most people would hate having as a neighbour. Recently, Norwegian media has broadly covered how an independent vigilant organization (“Nabovarsel”) is systematically notifying neighbours of persons previously convicted of sexual offenses toward children about their presence in the community. Instagram accounts, Facebook groups, and signature campaigns are among the measures the organization uses to spread its message; namely that a public “sex offender” register and mandatory notification of neighbours are necessary measures to make neighbourhoods around Norway safer.
At the same time, we must not forget that Norway has long tradition of penal moderation and a system aimed at facilitating reintegration for convicted people. Right-wing political parties are however in favour of stricter penalties for sexual offenses. The farthest right mainstream party has several times proposed that Norway introduces a register for people convicted of sexual crimes against children to prevent recidivism, and are right now preparing a new proposal. This of course creates debate. Without denying the harm of sexual abuse, my question is: are registers necessary? Recidivism numbers in Norway are in fact lower than in most countries, both generally and for sexual crimes. Sandbukt et al. (2020) found that only 3.4% of persons serving prison sentences for sexual offenses and released in the years 2010-2014 recidivated to a new sex offense conviction within a mean observation period of 6 years. This indicates that the inclusionary penal approach the country is known for somehow works. Secondly, it means that extremely few sexual offense cases would be prevented because of a register. In this blog post I will argue not only that introducing registries in Norway is a bad idea, but also that it will undermine the values that Norwegian penal policy is built upon.
If we picture a penalty scale, we find Norway and the US at different ends. Norway has a prison population rate of only 54 per 100.000 (WPB, 2021) and is considered to have “exceptional” prison conditions and penal practice compared to countries outside Scandinavia. The country’s penal control system inherently aims to reinforce membership in civil society after release without creating any systemic barriers after release and several measures have been put in place to make reintegration more likely. One example is that people’s criminal history and prior sexual convictions are strictly confidential and inaccessible to the public, including potential employers. Only for jobs where one is responsible for law and order, security, or the safety of vulnerable people (e.g. in the police, military, health, or social services), is a clean/restricted record required. It is the applicant himself, however, who will have to provide the employer with this information by obtaining the necessary police documentation. Such privacy protective measures have been introduced to ensure that persons with a criminal record have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else who lives in Norway upon release. According to John Pratt (2008), the roots of “Scandinavian exceptionalism” are in fact “to be found in the highly egalitarian cultural values and social structures in these countries” (p. 120). This Norwegian culture of equality and the rehabilitation-oriented foundation is seemingly so strong that it has so far contributed to resist all proposals of introducing registers and more punitive control measures. That does not mean that the mechanisms that once led to sex offender registration and notification laws (SORN) in the US are not present in Norway. Public reactions after severe child sexual abuse cases have common features across the two countries.
In 2000, two girls aged 8 and 10 years were found raped and murdered after going for a swim in a nearby lake in an area called Baneheia in Norway. Two men were convicted for the crimes. One admitted to one count of rape and one count of murder and was first sentenced to prison for 17 years, and thereafter to 19 years in the Court of Appeal. The other did not plead guilty to either rape or murder of the two girls, but was nevertheless convicted of two counts of murder and two counts of rape, and sentenced to Norwegian law’s most severe punishment; preventive detention for 21 years (for the record, this man has ever since claimed his innocence and is now having his case resumed). The “Baneheia case” made headlines in every national newspaper and TV channel because of its brutality. During the trial it became known that one of the men had also sexually abused another young girl on several occasions years before (which he admitted to in court), a fact that was an additional shock to the public. Similar to e.g. the Jacob Wetterling and Megan Kanka cases, the Baneheia case led to public debate on how to protect children from such crimes. The mother of one of the murdered girls soon became a well-known figure in Norwegian media, and later founded a foundation to help victims and spread awareness of child sexual abuse. Although not necessarily as a direct consequence of the Baneheia case, but in the wake of the case and during the following debate, three parliamentary representatives initiated a proposal to tighten the control. They suggested a range of measures to prevent and combat child sexual abuse, including the creation of a register where perpetrators ought to be portrayed with name, address and information about previous convictions on a separate website. The background of the proposal referred to both UK and US SORN laws, and the importance of public access to the register was underscored. An almost identical proposal came the year after and similar proposals for legislative amendments have been raised periodically since.
The reasons the Norwegian Justice Committee’s majority gave for not supporting the introduction of a register back in 2002 were the well-known negative effects SORN laws could have on rehabilitation and reintegration (see e.g. Harris and Levenson, 2021). In short, they argued that SORN laws challenge individuals’ right to privacy and point to stigma and loneliness as risk factors of new sexual offenses. They further argued that aggression and condemnation of the perpetrator seldom is helpful and acknowledged the fact that registers might actually work against their intended purpose. Later registry proposals have been met with the same response. Seemingly, imposing additional punishment is simply not in line with the very high-standing thought of rehabilitation and reintegration in Norway, demonstrating the importance of penal culture in this issue. In stark contrast to Norway, US has tradition of being “tough on crime,” demonstrated by measures such as harsh parole restrictions and the “three strikes and you’re out” policy. While the development of SORN laws in the US by some has been attributed to the systematically biased picture painted by the media in the wake of high-profile child sexual abuse cases and how it feeds public fear, I believe that penal culture also plays a central part. Because of the US’ “tough on crime” tradition, the public opinion growing out of this fear has had the opportunity to influence policy. In other words, this cultural backdrop may have contributed to the fact that the introduction of SORN laws was not perceived as radical or harsh, but rather as a welcome and suitable measure to fight the problem of child sexual abuse. In contrast, Norway has a long tradition of penal moderation where equality, rehabilitation and reintegration are important cornerstones, and where SORN laws do not fit into the bigger picture.
Despite these cultural differences, the Norwegian society’s concern with sexual offenses has seemingly grown and some have argued that Norway is already moving in a more punitive direction (see e.g. Shammas, 2015). Partly as a response to the perception of increasingly punitive sentiments in the population, stricter punishments for several types of sexual offenses were introduced in 2010. National prison registry data shows that the average prison sentence length for people imprisoned for sexual offenses increased from 606 days in 2010 to 867 days in 2019, a 43 % increase in nine years, and the proportion of prisoners serving a sexual offense conviction grew from about 5 % in year 2000 to about 20 % in 2020. This means that Norway is slowly moving away from their “exceptional” position, and we do not know what the consequences might be. A qualified guess, however, is that we will see the same results of registries in Norway as we have seen in other countries that have chosen to introduce them. Therefore, Norwegian authorities should think twice before they adopt these policies and continue down a potentially slippery slope. Considering the ongoing debate and call for stricter sexual offending policies in Norway, it is important that authorities continue to recognize that SORN laws do not enhance community safety or aid in the prevention of sexual abuse. Instead, public education, prevention, and a continued focus on reintegration are highly recommended measures.
Harris, D. A. & Levenson, J. 2021. Life on “the List” is a Life Lived in Fear: Post-Conviction Traumatic Stress in Men Convicted of Sexual Offenses. 65, 763-789.
Pratt, J. 2008. Scandinavian Exceptionalism in an Era of Penal Excess: Part I: The Nature and Roots of Scandinavian Exceptionalism. The British Journal of Criminology, 48, 119-137.
Sandbukt, I. J., Skardhamar, T., Kristoffersen, R. & Friestad, C. 2020. Testing the Static-99R as a Global Screen for Risk of Sex Crime Recidivism in a Norwegian Routine Sample. Sexual Abuse, 1079063220951194.
Shammas, V. L. 2015. The Rise of a More Punitive State: On the Attenuation of Norwegian Penal Exceptionalism in an Era of Welfare State Transformation. Critical Criminology, 24, 57-74.
WPB. 2021. World Prison Brief Data [Online]. Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research: World Prison Brief, Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research. Available: https://www.prisonstudies.org/ [Accessed 12.05.21 2021].