Education and Recidivism in the U.S. and Scandinavian Nations

Subject: Law
Pages: 16
Words: 7929
Reading time:
29 min
Study level: Bachelor


The United States criminal justice system undergoes sharp criticism for being overly rigid and ineffective in terms of rehabilitation and recidivism. It is reported that the majority of prisoners’ lives are destroyed due to its brutality and extreme sentences, which further force them to return to crime after release because they do not see any other opportunity. As a result, there is a severe impediment to their resocialization, which increases recidivism rates. Meanwhile, the Scandinavian and Nordic prison systems are characterized by minimally rough conditions and designed to help prisoners return to society. Due to their innovative open prison concept, they allow people to continue working or pursue higher education, which should solve their problems after release and prevent them from returning to crime. This study aims to test the claim that providing higher educational opportunities like in the Scandinavian criminal justice system relative to the US is significant to lower recidivism rates. To conduct the research, thirteen sources were analyzed to retrieve past and current statistics related to the recidivism rates. As a result, it was identified that providing educational opportunities to the prisoners is beneficial because it ensures their job opportunities after release. This study is a part of more significant research on the worldwide perspective of recidivism. The analysis of the criminal justice system of these two countries will facilitate further research to improve the lives of prisoners and provide them with various services and opportunities to ensure that they do not return to prison.


The criminal justice system of the United States (US) is often criticized as overly harsh and ineffective as a rehabilitation tool (Cleere 2020). It is said to ruin inmates’ lives with its brutality and extreme sentencing, driving them to return to crime after release due to a lack of other opportunities (Fassin 2016). The US approach produces multiple adverse effects on people (Cleere 2020) and complicates their resocialization and reintegration with societies (Byrd and McCloud 2020, 45). In such a way, formerly incarcerated people have many barriers preventing them from living in communities and increasing recidivism rates. On the other hand, Nordic and Scandinavian prison systems are often characterized as exemplary, featuring minimally harsh conditions and intended to help the inmates return to society (Cline and Wheeler 2019).

Through their innovative open prison concept, they let people keep working or attain higher education, which should address their issues after release and prevent them from returning to crime. Possessing skills and knowledge that can be useful in the future, former prisoners acquire the chance to find a job, find a place in communities, and avoid committing new crimes (Byrd and McCloud 2020, 56). In such a way, a milder approach to working with offenders has multiple advantages that can help to reintegrate them into society (Tønseth, Bergsland, and Hui 2019). This paper will test the assertion that the superior educational opportunities provided by Scandinavian criminal justice systems compared to that of the US are in large part responsible for their lower recidivism rates.

Scope, Goals, and Importance

The project will evaluate the recidivism outcomes for prison inmates in the US, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden over the last five years, divided by the type of crime they committed and educational attainment while in prison. A significant scope of the problem is evidenced by the fact that the criminal justice system is fundamental for the effective work of any society as it guarantees protection to citizens and ensures the stable functioning of communities. Its purpose is to ensure that the criminal does not reoffend and can be integrated back into society upon their release. Recidivism remains a nagging problem threatening the well-being of citizens and deteriorating the quality of their lives. Additionally, it demands significant costs from the budget to work with offenders and guarantee appropriate punishment and conditions. That is why the alteration of the system towards its increased effectiveness is vital for future progress and the ability to create a safe environment. The research can promote positive change and foster the shift towards more effective practices.

The goal will be to establish whether individuals that commit the same crimes take advantage of educational opportunities and successfully rehabilitate more in nations where these options are more available. The importance of the research is in its confirmation or refutation of the superiority of Scandinavian exceptionalism as an approach to rehabilitation. Drake (2018, 5) claims that, while such an advantage is often asserted, the less severe conditions of Scandinavian prison do not remove the experience of liberty loss that is central to the prison experience. As such, the prisoners’ fundamental condition does not change significantly, and the differences may only achieve a minor effect. Following the goal, it is vital to investigate whether the education opportunities and overall milder approach affect the future life of ex-offenders and their chances for successful rehabilitation and becoming community members. The given goal presupposes the use of data about formerly incarcerated people, their experiences, and the ability to reintegrate into society. At the same time, it implies comparing two opposite criminal justice systems, which is vital for the enhanced vision of how they can be applied to particular situations and communities.

The significance of the research issue comes from the high recidivism rates and the topical problem of crime. Regardless of multiple attempts, there is a significant number of ex-offenders who cannot reintegrate and engage in new crimes. It might occur because of various causes; however, the inconsistency of the criminal justice system is one of the major factors affecting the problem and complicating it. For instance, in the USA, about 60% of formerly incarcerated individuals are imprisoned again because of various crimes (Katsiyannis et al. 2018). This number evidences the inability of the criminal system to ensure the appropriate rehabilitation and reintegration of individuals. For this reason, there are numerous appeals to alter the existing approach and use the example of Scandinavian states with their unique vision of imprisonment. Comparing the two systems, it is possible to acquire an enhanced understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of the employed approaches and conclude whether some practices can be applied to other settings.

Literature Review

Prior to reviewing the findings of studies on the characteristics of the prison systems in the US and Scandinavian countries, it is essential to provide definitions of relevant terms. First, recidivism is one of the core concepts of criminal justice that is defined as an individual’s relapse into offending behaviors, most likely after being subjected to a correctional intervention as a consequence of a previous crime (Yukhnenko et al., 2019). Recidivism rate refers to the relative population of offenders who, after being released from a correctional facility, get back to prisons or other penal institutions as a result of committing a new crime (James, 2015). Prison (or correctional/punitive confinement) refers to the punishment that a court imposes for serious crimes, while for less severe crimes, short-term incarceration in detention centers and jail is imposed (Coyle, 2020). Criminal rehabilitation is defined as the process of helping individuals within the prison system change and improve, thus allowing them to separate themselves from the adverse environmental factors that made them commit crime initially (Forsberg & Douglas, 2020).

The importance of comparing recidivism rates and prisoner education is associated with the findings that the environment in prisons can be repressive and, thus, hinder the process of rehabilitation. Even within one prison system and within prisons with the same level of custody, the conditions of confinement can vary significantly in terms of levels of staffing, available resources, correctional philosophy, administrative leadership, and other aspects (National Research Council, 2014). As suggested by van der Helm, Stams, and van der Lean (2011), the repressiveness of the prison climate is reinforced by the grim and uninviting atmosphere, incremental and strict rules, the lack of individual privacy, as well as frequent humiliation of inmates by their peers or staff. Such environments are unfavorable for facilitating education and positive outcomes of rehabilitation (van der Helm et al., 2011). Thus, depending on the climate in a correctional institution and the efforts of the staff aimed at helping inmates prepare for their life after being released or fulfill themselves as individuals through education, training, and self-development. The comparison of recidivism rates and educational statistics at prisons can point to the favorable or unfavorable conditions within correctional systems.

Important findings of available research on the effectiveness of the US and Scandinavian prison systems are presented in the following review. Byrd and McCloud (2020) argue that prison education is paramount for the reintegration of ex-inmates. They also cite evidence that the US prison system is becoming increasingly repressive because it does not consider what happens to inmates after they are released. Castro, Hunter, Hardison, and Johnson-Ojeda (2018) provide evidence that government secondary education programs in American prisons are slowly but gradually being implemented. Katsiyannis, Whitford, Zhang, and Gage (2018) analyzed various previous works on US prisons using an intersectional approach and identified several biological, social, and economic drivers of recidivism. The US prison system is not the only one that has been the focus of scholarly attention.

The US prison system has been widely criticized for its ineffectiveness in addressing the educational needs of inmates. For example, both Reid (2019) and Drake (2018) criticized the prison system comprehensively, in terms of both concept and practice, building their argument on the fact that its implementation contradicts the principles on which it was once based. Fassin (2016) explores the inner climate of prisons and their place in society, describing prisoners’ and prison workers’ struggles and explaining how prisons reflect and exacerbate racial and class inequalities. Lee’s (2019) work focuses on one of the most pressing problems in any prison system, namely violence. There, the author also compares the two extremes, the US and the Scandinavian prisons. Cleere (2020) proves in her work that prison education allows ex-prisoners to avoid negative behaviors such as recidivism. However, many sociological prison-related topics remain poorly researched or even untouched.

The approach that Scandinavian countries took is in stark contrast to the US prison system. One of the most notable works that explore the Norwegian prison system is the book by Cline and Wheeler (2019) who suggested that the system was highly effective due to its generally favorable living conditions and attention to the educational needs of prisoners. Andersen and Telle (2019), examining an electronic monitoring experiment carried out in Norway in the second half of the 1900s, conclude that this practice reduces recidivism and improves ex-criminals reintegration into society. However, the Scandinavian prison system is not perfect, as evidenced by the work of Manger, Eikeland, and Asbjørnsen (2019) on the subject of inmates’ various barriers to education. Tønseth, Bergsland, and Hui study the impact of prison education in Norway, concluding that training inmates is an important step to help inmates become better prepared for life in society after being released. The relationship between the country’s socioeconomic structure and the nature of the prison system in Scandinavia is being explored by Smith and Ugelvik (2017). As one can see, there is already a considerable body of knowledge about the Norwegian prison system.

Research Question

This paper will consider the relationship between education and recidivism in American and Scandinavian prisons. It should be noted that Scandinavia is a region with multiple nations, and each will be analyzed separately. Per Castro et al. (2018, 418), only 202 of the U.S.’s 4627 postsecondary education facilities provided courses that were available at a prison, with most penitentiaries providing no such opportunities. On the other hand, prison education is normalized in much of Scandinavian law (Cleere 2020), and people in open prisons can continue learning as normal. In terms of recidivism, Andersen and Telle (2019) provide figures for Norway of 29% after one year, 41% after two, and 47% after three. In the U.S., Katsiyannis et al. (2018) find that, per official statistics, 68% of inmates reoffend within three years and 76.6%, within five. The differences in opinions and visions precondition the need for the in-depth investigation of both paradigms to compare and conclude about the influence they might have on people. As such, the research question for this paper would be, “Do the conditions at Scandinavian prisons, and especially their education opportunities, reduce the recidivism rates among inmates compared to those in the US?”

Analysis Approach/ Methodology

The chosen methodology for the research is the comparative analysis of data for US and Scandinavian prison systems. It provides objective and accurate data that can be used for discussion and concluding about the advantages or disadvantages of a certain criminal justice system. The comparison of the US, which is a country, and Scandinavia, which is a region, makes sense methodologically because of the significant difference in total population between the US and separate countries of Scandinavia. Besides, due to the fact that the approach to the correctional systems is similar in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, which allows grouping the countries into one component for comparative analysis. The focus of the governments in the three countries is to reduce reoffending through a more loyal approach toward imprisonment, favorable conditions for life and education, as well as the increased attention to the reintegration of inmates into society (Schartmueller, 2015). Besides, the US is made up of fifty states, which may have different approaches to prisoner rehabilitation, while the national trend is cohesive throughout the states.

Considering these factors and the nature of the project, the analysis of quantitative measures seems a preferable option needed to increase the value of the study. Data will be collected on prison sentences, education, and recidivism in the nations outlined in the study and subdivide it based on the type of crime committed. These factors are critical because education is part of the reform that helps the inmate reenter society and not recede, but sentence length is a significant factor detracting from reentry and may be considerably different between the US and Scandinavia (Sweden, Denmark, and Norway). They will then analyze the educational attainment rates in each of the groups as well as the recidivism rates in it. They will also determine the recidivism rates among people who attained particular educational achievements. Having obtained this information, the researcher will then analyze using the qualitative approach to determine whether the differences in education and recidivism means across each nation are significant.

Analysis of Data

Many US citizens have developed their understanding and conceptualization of the global justice system, including prison and rehabilitation facilities, through their beliefs, personal experiences, as well as the portrayal of the media. Therefore, it may be difficult to conceive a prison system that focuses predominantly on education and rehabilitation rather than exclusively on punitive measures. Compared to the US system, the Scandinavian approach toward punishment is unique because it aims to rehabilitate inmates to address recidivism (Drake, 2018). In addition, in contrast to the size of US prisons, the largest Nordic prison houses 350 inmates while the majority of the prisons in the region are smaller in size and hold approximately 100 inmates (Andersen et al., 2019). The philosophy behind such a limited prison size is maintaining several active prisoners in different parts of the country, thus making sure that inmates can reside closer to their families and home environments (Tønseth et al., 2019). Therefore, considering the philosophy of the Nordic prison system in contrast to the US approach, several important points of comparison will be presented.

Prison Population


The World Prison Brief (2018) data presents a comprehensive picture regarding prison population statistics in the US. Including pre-trial detainees, the total prison population in 2018 amounted to 2,094,000, which was made up of 738,400 inmates in local jails, 1,176,400 in state prisons, and 179,200 in federal prisoners (World Prison Brief, 2018). The prison population rate for the year 2018 was 639 inmates per 100,000 of the national population, based on an estimated national population of 327.54 million at the end of 2018 (World Prison Brief, 2018). There were 23.4% pre-trial detainees of the entire prison population, 9.8% female prisoners, 0.2% juveniles, and 5.2% foreign prisoners. The total number of establishments is 4,455, including 3,163 local jails, 1,190 state confinement facilities, and 102 federal confinement facilities (World Prison Brief, 2018). The official capacity of the prison system for the year 2017 was 2,150,000 individuals, while the occupancy level based on official capacity was 99.8% in 2017 (World Prison Brief, 2018).

US prison population total and prison population by year
Figure 1. US prison population total and prison population by year (World Prison Brief, 2018).

Based on the data on the prison population trends in the US, the prison population in the country between 2000 and 2016 never exceeded the 2,400,00 mark, with the highest number recorded being 2,307,504 in 2008 (World Prison Brief, 2018). The mean (m) prison population in the US for the period between 2000 and 2016 was 2,156,694, while the lowest mark was 1,937,482 in 2000. As to the prison population rate, the mean (m) derived from the available World Prison Brief (2018) data is 711. The highest prison population rate was 755 in 2008, while the lowest was 655 in 2016.



Several important statistics come from the World Prison Brief (2021b) and the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research. In 2021, the total prison population in Norway was 2,905 individuals as per the National Prison Administration, which amounts to the prison population rate of 54%, based on an estimated national population of 5.42 million in April 2021 (World Prison Brief, 2021b). The percentage of pre-trial detainees was 21.9%, with the percentage of female prisoners averaging at 5.2% (World Prison Brief, 2021b). When it comes to the minors and juveniles (individuals under the age of 18) in the criminal justice system, there are only 0.4% in 2021 (World Prison Brief, 2021b). Besides, foreign prisoners constitute 24.8% of the prison population, the entirety of which is being held in 33 units, which consist of 58 prisons (World Prison Brief, 2021b). The official capacity of Norway’s prison system is 3,816 individuals, while its occupancy level is 76.1% in 2021 (World Prison Brief, 2021b).

Norway’s prison population total and prison population by year
Figure 2. Norway’s prison population total and prison population by year (World Prison Brief, 2021b).

Based on the prison population trend graphs above, it can be noted that the prison population in Norway never exceeded the 4,000 mark between 2000 and 2018. The highest population rate to date was in 2016 with 3,850 prisoners, followed by 3,717 in 2014. The average, or mean (m) prison population in Norway throughout 2000 and 2018 was 3,325. The lowest prison population was 2,548 in 2000. As to the prison population rate, the highest rate was in 74 in 2010 while the lowest was 57 in 2000. The mean (m) prison population rate, which is the number of inmates per 100,000 Norwegians, is 68 throughout the 2000-2018 period.


In 2020, which is the year of publication of the latest World Prison Brief (2020) report concerning Sweden, the country’s total prison population was 7,000 inmates in 2020, which made the prison population rate of 68 based on the estimated national population of 10.36 million at the beginning of May of the same year (World Prison Brief, 2020). There was 27.9% of pre-trial detainees, while the percentage of female prisoners in the Swedish correctional system was 6.1% (World Prison Brief, 2020). Juveniles and minors, which are individuals under 18 years old, constituted only 0/3% of Sweden’s prison population, while there were 22.1% of prisoners based on the latest available data in 2016 (World Prison Brief, 2020). The official capacity of the country’s prison system is 6,888 inmates, while the occupancy level based on official capacity was 101.6% in 2020 (World Prison Brief, 2020).

Sweden’s prison population total and prison population by year
Figure 3. Sweden’s prison population total and prison population by year (World Prison Brief, 2020).

Based on the prison population trend graphs above, the total prison population in Sweden exceeded the 7,000 mark in 2004 and 2006. The mean (m) population measure between 2000 and 2018 was 6,400 prisoners (based on the available World Prison Brief data), with a minimum population of 5,326 in the year 2000. As to the prison population rate, the highest scores were in 2004 and 2006 with 78 and 79 respectively. The mean (m) of the prison population rate, which is measured by identifying the number of inmates per 100,000, is 68 prisoners per 100,000 of the Swedish population. The minimum prison population rate was 58 in 2016.


Drawing from the World Prison Brief (2021a) data on the prison system of Denmark, the total prison population-based national prison administration was 4,227. Based on an estimated national population of 5.84 million in April 2021, the prison population rate in the country was 72 (World Prison Brief, 2021a). The percentage of pre-trial detainees for the same year was 39.7%, while there were 4.1% of female prisoners from the entire prison population (World Prison Brief, 2021a). Juveniles and minors, which are individuals under the age of 18, constituted 0.3% of the whole prison population of Denmark (World Prison Brief, 2021a). Foreign prisoners constituted 27.1% of the population in the prisons, with the total number of institutions amounting to 45 (World Prison Brief, 2021a). The official capacity of the prison system of Denmark is 4,085 individuals while for 2021, the occupancy level of the prison system is reported to amount to 103.5% (World Prison Brief, 2021a).

Denmark’s prison population total and prison population by year

Denmark’s prison population total and prison population by year
Figure 4. Denmark’s prison population total and prison population by year (World Prison Brief, 2021a).

Based on the prison population trend graphs above, the total prison population in Sweden never exceeded the 4,000 mark throughout 2000 to 2018, with the highest number of prisoners being 3,984 in 2012. The mean (m) population measure between 2000 and 2018 was 3,693 prisoners (based on the available World Prison Brief data), with a minimum population of 3,382 in the year 2000. As to the prison population rate, the highest scores were in 2006, 2010, and 2012 with 72, 71, and 71, respectively. The mean (m) of the prison population rate, which is measured by identifying the number of inmates per 100,000, is 66 prisoners per 100,000 of the population of Denmark. The minimum prison population rate was 60 in 2016.

Education of Inmates


The typical US prisoner is 57 years old on average with relatively low levels of literacy, completing mainly primary education (“Literacy statistics,” 2020). More than 60% of the US prison population is functionally illiterate, with penal institutions showing that prisoners have a 16% likelihood of reoffending and returning to prison if they receive help with literacy in contrast to 70% that receive no such help (“Literacy statistics,” 2020). The connections between the academic failure of individuals and the increased risks of reoffending create a vicious circle of limited literacy leading to crime, which leads to incarceration and recidivism.

When it comes to the available statistics on the educational attainment for the population of the US residing at correctional facilities, there is limited current data on the issue. The latest available data comes from the US PIAAC Survey of Incarcerated adults, which provided information about the education and training that inmates receive before reintegrating into society (Rampey et al., 2016). The survey is important for reflecting relevant data on the issue because 54% of the surveyed individuals were scheduled to be released from prison within two years of the survey (Rampey et al., 2016). Regarding literacy, there were 29% of inmates who scored below level 2 (out of 5) on the PIAAC survey as compared to only 19% of adults in US households (Rampey et al., 2016). Regarding numeracy, 52% of the surveyed inmates scored below level 2 (out of 5) as compared to 29% of adults in US households.

Percentage of adults scoring below level 2 (out of 5) on PIAAC
Figure 5. Percentage of adults scoring below level 2 (out of 5) on PIAAC (Rampey et al., 2016).

The PIAAC survey also revealed that 58% of the incarcerated population had no further education when serving their terms at correctional facilities (Rampey et al., 2016). 6,8% would have liked to completed grades 7-8, 21% to attain HS Diploma or a GED, 4% would like to get Pre-associate education, 7% would have liked to get a College or Trade School Certificate, and 2% wanted to get an Associate’s Degree while none of the surveyed inmates aimed to get Bachelor’s Degree (Rampey et al., 2016). 23% of prisoners included in the PIAAC survey said that they received some kind of job training during their current incarceration, while 14% were on a waiting list (Rampey et al., 2016).


The typical Scandinavian prisoner is often described as an individual aged 30 and over, having left an educational facility quite early, not having enough experience in the labor market, and quite often have substance abuse issues (Baldursson, Karsikas, & Kuivajärvi, 2009). The Nordic survey of the prison education system has shown that between 7% and 16% of prisoners at correctional facilities have completed some level of education, also indicating that the youngest prisoners have the lowest quality of education (Baldursson et al., 2009).


In Norway, rehabilitation through education is among the crucial principles of the correctional system in the country because the prison population is largely uneducated. Eikeland et al. (2016) found that the highest level of education among more than 50% of Norwegian prisoners was primary education as compared to 26.9% of the average population. In the survey by Revold (2015), 30% of inmates stated that they had difficulties reading and writing. 51.3% of prisoners took part in some kind of education; 92% of all prisoners participating in education were men while 8% were women (Eikeland et al., 2016).

The objective of the Norwegian Prison system is to give comprehensive and upper secondary education to inmates (Baldursson et al., 2009). It is expected that prisoners, in collaboration with correctional institution staff, will have as few obstacles as possible to participate in education and training activities to the most significant possible extent (Baldursson et al., 2009). With the help of the Another Spring program, it becomes easier for Norwegian prisoners to have multi-dimensional experiences with educational situations and act in accordance with their educational backgrounds and various learning barriers. As to the quantitative results of prison education, the average number of students per day within prison education is around 1,300 individuals (Baldursson et al., 2009). In general, in closed facilities where inmates serve long sentences, almost the same number of students take part in educational activities (Baldursson et al., 2009). However, there is considerable turnover at smaller prisons where inmates are serving shorter sentences.


Sweden, which also adheres to the principle of rehabilitation through training. A total of 36% of surveyed inmates said that they were taking part in some educational activity when serving their sentences (Kosmidou, 2011). Based on the available data, just fewer than 40% of inmates stated that they completed no more education than the mandatory level while 34% had completed a 2 to 4 year of the four-year upped secondary program at schools (Kosmidou, 2011). Most educational activities, which were at 40%, were upper-secondary level, followed by 34% of a program corresponding to the nine-year mandatory school and 22% of vocational training (Kosmidou, 2011). Besides, around 4% of the studies were at the university or higher-education training (Kosmidou, 2011).

The Swedish correctional system implies the development of a sentence plan for each prisoner that is tailored to their needs. The project intends to provide a framework based on which inmates will be better prepared to reintegrate into the community after being released (Baldursson et al., 2009). Similar to the Another Spring program in Norway, Sweden has introduced the Better Out program that helps individuals who have been put in prison to leave facilities better-equipped to participate in work, education, rehabilitation programs, as well as recreational activities (Baldursson et al., 2009). As to the quantitative result of prisoner education in Sweden, around 40% of prisoners in the country have completed education at no more than the mandatory level, while a total of 36% of inmates said that they took part in at least one educational activity during sentence service (Baldursson et al., 2009).


In Denmark, every ninth prisoner (11%) serving their sentences had not completed the compulsory level school (Eikeland et al., 2016). However, the inmates in the country had higher rates of prisoners who had studied at the upper secondary level, representing one, two, or three years of upper secondary education or vocational training even though there were only 4.2% of prisoners with higher education (Eikeland et al., 2016). Because of the low rates of education, Denmark has shown the highest rates of inmate training, with 75% of the total prisoner population participating in some educational activities when serving their sentences (Eikeland et al., 2016). 11% of the prisoners engaged either at an introductory or general adult education level (Eikeland et al., 2016).

Danish prisoners are mandated to work, with the requirement being implemented in different ways, including participation in prison education. Prisoners can make their own choices in accordance with staff recommendations. There are many reasons for Danish inmates to get involved in training ad educational activities due to the possibility to developed detailed plans of sentencing and set goals for their in-prison and post-prison lives (Baldursson et al., 2009). Such plans are encouraged to be revised to be relevant to sentences being served and adapted to the changing prisoner situations. When it comes to the quantitative results of prison education, there are around 460 full-time educational facilities at Danish prisoners, while around 1000 inmates per day receive release privileges to again education (Baldursson et al., 2009). There are around 75 locations for vocational training for Danish inmates (Baldursson et al., 2009).

Recidivism Rates


Based on the data from the US Department of Justice, 60% of the arrests that took place after prisoners were released from state prisons occurred during the years 4 through 9 (Alper, Durose, & Markman, 2018). In the country, around 68% of released prisoners are arrested within 3 years, 79% within 6 years, and 83% within 9 years (Alper et al., 2018). In addition, around 75% of the offenders who served their sentences for drug-related crimes were arrested for non-drug-related crimes within 9 years of their release (Alper et al., 2018). 44% of the released prisoners are usually arrested during the first year following their release, while only 24% are arrested during the ninth year (Alper et al., 2018). Based on the recent Healthy People 2020 (2020) data, 75% of prisoners get rearrested within 3 years of their release, while more than 50% are incarcerated again.


In Norway, the recidivism rate is among the lowest globally, averaging at around 20% (Denny, 2016). In Sweden, which is also among the countries with lower incarceration and crime rates, recidivism is around 40%, which is significantly less compared to the US and the majority of European countries (Aleem, 2015). Finally, in Denmark, the recidivism rate is around 27%, which is three times less than the rate in the US and second in place after Norway in the list of Scandinavian countries.


Based on the quantitative data from the comparative analysis of the state of the US and Scandinavian (Denmark, Sweden, Norway) countries, several notable findings are outlined. The statistics point to a significant difference in the overall approach toward incarceration, in which the US has very high incarceration rates compared to the Scandinavian countries analyzed. Considering the fact that many people are convicted for their crimes and are forced to reside in correctional facilities, the rates of reoffending are the highest. Therefore, this shows that the existing prison system in the US is ineffective for preventing or reducing the number of crime cases occurring in the country, which is an important finding considering the fact that a good justice system should do more good than harm. The fact that more than two-thirds of offenders released from US prisons get arrested within the three years of their release points to the harmful effects of the prison system and its lack of attention to the process of reintegrating prisoners back into society.

In contrast, the average rate of imprisonment in Scandinavian countries as well as the low rates of reoffending in the region point to the consistent effectiveness of the system. While it is not to say that the prison systems in the countries are without flaws, the fact that the ex-inmates in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway have a much lower likelihood of reoffending shows that the system works. The most important takeaway from the statistics is that Scandinavian prisons invest in the education of their inmates, who are more likely to participate in educational programs and initiatives that help create a better society in general. With the principles of restorative justice and prisoner rehabilitation at play, it becomes possible for inmates to improve as individuals and get education and training that can help them reintegrate into society after release. As suggested by the scholars the work of which was explored in the literature review, education and efforts of improvement help prisoners avoid negative behaviors, such as recidivism, and enable them to work to reach their goals.


The criminal justice system of the United States has shown to be ineffective in dealing with its core objective, which is to prevent the occurrence of crime and reduce reoffending. The approach that the system has been implementing is insufficient in helping inmates integrate into society well after their release. The lack of attention to inmates’ needs, ranging from educational opportunities, vocational training, as well as mental health issues, results in a poorly-trained inmate population that finds it challenging to get work or attain education after being released. The US should learn from the example of Scandinavian countries that have been regularly investing in developing superior educational opportunities for inmates to make them more valuable contributors to society

Annotated Bibliography

Andersen, Synøve N., and Kjetil Telle. 2019. “Better Out Than In? The Effect on Recidivism of Replacing Incarceration with Electronic Monitoring in Norway.” European Journal of Criminology. Web.

The authors discuss the practice implemented in Norway between 2008 and 2011 of electronically monitoring convicted criminals instead of incarcerating them. Through this method, the person can mostly live their life as usual, though there are still restrictions on their activities. As a result, they can at least partially avoid the stigma associated with a prison sentence and continue their careers instead of spending their time unproductively. The authors find that the approach had a positive effect on reducing recidivism, especially for people without prior offenses or unemployment. The people around them are able to frame the crime as a one-time mistake rather than a problem serious enough to warrant continued social isolation through continued interaction. The significance of this study is in its demonstration of the effects of the Scandinavian approach on recidivism. The authors used instrumental variables estimation and sub-sampling in the study. The article is aimed at an erudite audience, namely European criminologists, lawyers, sociologists, and psychologists.

Byrd, Roger C., and Harvey McCloud. 2020. Sisyphus No More: The Case for Prison Education. London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

The authors make a case for expanding education provided in American prisons to help inmates return to society and avoid recidivism. They discuss the history and characteristics of American prison inmates, finding that the population grew in recent decades without a corresponding increase in crime rates due to the tough-on-crime mentality. As a result, prisoner populations are aging, especially given the recent decline in juvenile prisoner numbers. The authors find that, under the current system, educational attainment for prisoners is much lower than that of people without a criminal record. Without education, they struggle to return to society after their sentence, instead reoffending and incurring additional costs to the system. The importance of this book is in its exploration of the relationship between education and reentry in the case of the US. Writers use both descriptive techniques and the multifaceted approach to building an argument. The book is of inclusive nature; its intended audience includes ordinary readers and specialists in forensic science and law.

Castro, Erin L., Rebecca K. Hunter, Tara Hardison, and Vanessa Johnson-Ojeda. 2018. “The Landscape of Postsecondary Education in Prison and the Influence of Second Chance Pell: An Analysis of Transferability, Credit-Bearing Status, and Accreditation.” The Prison Journal 98 (4): 405-426.

The authors of this work attempt to understand the degree of availability of postsecondary education in American prisons. They frame the research within the context of the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, a governmental initiative to promote higher education opportunities in prisons. They find that, among 4627 total accredited institutions, only 202 offer such courses, which is an increase of at least 24 since the 2016 initiation of the Second Chance Pell. With that said, the program’s significance is also in expanding existing programs, with a third of all educational facilities providing the courses at least partially funded by the program. The study’s significance is in its detailed exploration of secondary education opportunities in U.S. prisons. The researchers applied descriptive analysis in their study. The target audience for this research article is prison teachers and instructors.

Cleere, Geraldine. 2020. Prison Education and Desistance: Changing Perspectives. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis.

The author investigates the relationship between prison education and the ability of the released inmate to desist from committing additional crimes. They mention that, while the link between education and recidivism is well-known, the specific factors that contribute to the decline of the latter are unknown and warrant exploration. To that end, they review the concept, collect evidence for education availability and personal change in different systems, and employ several theories to explain the phenomenon. Importantly, the author relies on prisoners’ experiences, collecting information directly and obtaining a firsthand understanding of the situation. The findings include improved confidence and self-control as a result of education as well as the formation of social bonds that make one reconsider offending. The importance of the book is in its promotion of the prison education argument. Cleere applied the comparative method during the analysis of prisoners’ data. As the writer notes, the book will be helpful to criminologists, prison psychologists and teachers, and experts in the sociology of prison.

Cline, Hugh F., and Stanton Wheeler. 2019. The Scandinavian Prison Study. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

The authors conduct an in-depth analysis of fifteen Scandinavian prisons in a study that was published as a book. They analyze the social climate of these facilities and the effects it has on inmates. The authors are interested in the differences between the different prisons, which were built in different periods, as well as inmate responses to that variation. Ultimately, the purpose of the study is to explore questions such as cross-national differences in inmate experiences and the effects of approaching criminal reform from a psychiatric perspective. The importance of the book is in its exploration of the formation and drivers of the Scandinavian system, which may provide ideas on whether it can be replicated elsewhere. The writers have applied a comparative approach to analyze the social structure of prisons comprehensively. The intended audience for this book is prison sociologists and psychologists.

Drake, Deborah. 2018. “Prisons and State Building: Promoting ‘The Fiasco of the Prison’ in a Global Context.” International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy 7 (4): 1-15.

The author argues that prisons have failed in their role, both conceptually and in practice. They claim that prisons’ undemocratic and repressive nature contradicts the principles of democracy that it is supposed to uphold. Moreover, they operate inhumanely and fail to achieve their stated purpose of reforming criminals, instead contributing to recidivism. Regardless of the conditions within a prison, they all share the fundamental humiliation of imprisonment and the loss of freedom. Even in Scandinavian open prisons, this existential suffering of imprisonment is present, though the inmates are not abused physically or psychologically as they might be elsewhere. The relevance of the article to this study is in its assertion that Scandinavian open prisons fail to address this fundamental problem despite their outward leniency. One can say that the research method of this article is criticism. This work will be helpful to everyone interested in the current state of the prison as an institution of social punishment and correction.

Fassin, Didier. 2016. Prison Worlds: An Ethnography of the Carceral Condition. Oxford: Wiley.

The author discusses the evolution of prisons, both in the US and around the world. They cover the recent history of prisons, which has involved overcrowding to the point where inmates sometimes desire to be put in solitary confinement and overrepresentation of minorities. They find that, in search of order and security, they become unnecessarily brutal and repressive toward inmates, constituting excessive punishment for which they were not intended. Laws designed to counteract this problem and provide inmates with rights such as education are frequently bypassed. Overall, the system is designed to harm those entering it and ensure their eventual return following a repeat offense, resisting change strongly. The importance of this article is in its discussion of the faults of American prisons, which can be compared to Scandinavian counterparts to find potential improvements. Fassin examines prison as a social institution through the prism of intersectionality. Sociologists and human rights defenders will find a lot of new knowledge in this book.

Katsiyannis, Antonis, Denise K. Whitford, Dake Zhang, and Nicholas A. Gage. 2018. “Adult Recidivism in US: A Meta-Analysis 1994–2015.” Journal of Child and Family Studies 27 (3): 686-696.

The authors conduct a longitudinal study of recidivism in the US between 1994 and 2015. To do so, they collect and analyze 19 past studies that gathered data about recidivism between 1960 and 2008. They are interested in the characteristics of the offenders that predict their chance of reoffending. They find that gender, age, socioeconomic status, and psychological variables are related to the probability of repeat offenses, while criminal history or race are not. Substance abuse, mental health issues, neglect or abuse as a child, and gang involvement were also significant. The importance of the study is in its description of factors that induce recidivism, some of which may be affected by education. Researchers applied techniques such as systematic review and meta-analysis to obtain and interpret data. This article brings new and updated knowledge about prison communities to intersectional sociologists, prison instructors, and psychologists.

Lee, Bandy X. 2019. Violence: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Causes, Consequences, and Cures. Oxford: Wiley.

The author considers all aspects of violence, such as its types, causes, results, and treatments for it. Starting with the biological and psychological causes of the phenomenon, they then proceed to its social and societal framework. Then, they investigate the consequences of violence, both for the perpetrators and for their victims. Finally, they analyze the current intervention and prevention frameworks for violence, evaluating different approaches and their effectiveness. In particular, they consider viewing prevention from a public health, global medicine, and nonviolence perspective. As part of the final section, they discuss several different prison systems, notably the Scandinavian one, and the various therapies they employ. The value of the book is in its direct comparison of the American and Scandinavian approaches. The authors applied multidisciplinary and intersectional approaches to bring new knowledge and systematize the existing one. They consider specialists from various scientific fields as their intended audience.

Manger, Terje, Ole Johan Eikeland, and Arve Asbjørnsen. 2019. “Why do Not More Prisoners Participate in Adult Education? An Analysis of Barriers to Education in Norwegian Prisons.” International Review of Education 65 (5): 711-733.

The authors consider the question of why, despite the availability of education to them, many Norwegian prisoners do not participate in education. They formulate a model that comprises institutional, situational, and dispositional barriers and confirm it through a survey of prisoners. The first are formal policies, positions, or criteria that exclude or disadvantage specific groups. The second are individual factors such as financial issues or lack of access to transportation. Finally, dispositional barriers concern one’s opinion of themselves and their ability to learn. The author finds examples of all three, with participants unable or unwilling to participate in education due to a variety of causes. The importance of the article is in its critique of the Scandinavian system and provision of improvement suggestions. The research method used in this work is a survey based on a unique evaluation system, and the target audience of the article is prison teachers.

Reid, Sue Titus. 2019. A Basic Introduction to Criminal Justice. New York: Wolters Kluwer.

The author considers the criminal justice system in all of its aspects, including policing, court, and corrections as well as juvenile courts. The book consists of five parts: an overview, a description of policing, an account of criminal court case processing, a confinement and corrections chapter, and a separate discussion of juvenile justice. Among other things, they discuss the history of prison education in the US, with several actors aiming to undermine it. Public agencies worked to undermine the initiatives in an effort to cut budgets, spreading misconceptions that still persist in the system. Some of these impulses to cut down on prison education are still present, which partially leads to the current resistance to additional prison education opportunities. The importance of the article is in its discussion of the history of prison education in the U.S. and the factors that limit it. One can say that this book is an entrance point for students into contemporary US criminology.

Schiff, Peter Scharff, and Thomas Ugelvik. 2017. “Punishment and Welfare in Scandinavia.” In Scandinavian Penal History, Culture and Prison Practice, edited by Peter Scharff Schiff and Thomas Ugelvik, 511-530. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

In the concluding chapter of the overall book, the authors summarize the findings from each of the preceding chapters. Their purpose is to link the unique conditions of Scandinavian prisons to the qualities of their host countries, most importantly their nature of welfare states. They aim to answer the question of whether the Scandinavian way of designing and running prisons is unique and what issues it had. They also consider perspectives that challenge the traditional conceptions of Scandinavian exceptionalism, noting views that claim that, rather than reform criminals, the nations’ system merely make the prison process more efficient and presentable. The value of this source is that it provides a detailed overview of aspects of the Scandinavian prison system beyond open prisons. The book itself, which uses multidisciplinary, historical and critical approaches, will interest criminologists, lawyers and prison sociologists.

Tønseth, Christin, Ragnhild Bergsland, and Sammy King Fai Hui. 2019. “Prison Education in Norway – The Importance for Work and Life after Release.” Cogent Education 6 (1): 405-426.

The authors study the effects of prison education on the lives of prisoners after they were released. They do so by conducting a series of interviews with former inmates and bureaucrats who work with them. Their conceptual model is that learning is transformative and has the potential to change the learner, thereby contributing to their rehabilitation. They find that the recipients of education experienced social benefit, self-determination, and accountability improvements. Those with low initial education levels, such as school dropouts, benefit particularly strongly from education, as jobs are effectively unachievable to them without it. With that said, the level of education provided in the study is only that of the secondary school, which does not guarantee employment. The value of this article is in its demonstration of the effects of education on prisoner reentry into society upon release. This research article will be of particular interest to prison teachers and instructors outside Norway.


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