According to this article Norway's prison system is very effective when compared to the one in US:

  • incarceration rate - 75 / 100K compared to 707 / 100K in US
  • recidivism rate - 20% compared to more than 75% in US (re-arrested within five years)

Also, according to this skeptics question and answer, sending someone to prison is rather costly (the same order of magnitude as going to a top university).

Clearly, there are cultural difference that might favor Norway when it comes to prison system, but I think there are also political factors.

Question: Why does the US prison system seem so ineffective when compared to prison systems in other developed countries?

  • 15
    @notstoreboughtdirt bad guys more inmates kept longer and more likely to go back. That kind of comment assumes that criminals are criminals because they are "bad guys" and will keep being criminals (because "bad guys"). Of course, the logical conclusion is that any crime should be punished with execution (after all, it is cheaper and they are, well, "bad guys" who will keep committing crimes). But Norway statistics tell a different story...
    – SJuan76
    Jan 4, 2018 at 10:31
  • 8
    You can find much reading material online about why the US prison system is the way it is. In my opinion, it's a mixture of a culture focused almost exclusively on punishment and unfortunate financial incentives. Maybe you find this TED talk interesting: youtube.com/watch?v=wtV5ev6813I
    – Roland
    Jan 4, 2018 at 11:35
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    How much statistical value is there in comparing a near homogeneus Scandinavian country with the uniquely diverse US? The answer, evaluating the root cause of the problem, is well beyond the political measures and leaning towards sociological factors? Jan 4, 2018 at 16:49
  • 6
    It's because we use a very different definition of 'effective' in the US. The prison industry makes a crapload of money. Therefore, it's a very effective system. It's just that Norway uses a different definition.
    – user1530
    Jan 4, 2018 at 18:21
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    @DrunkCynic that is a very lazy and inaccurate deflection of the topic. The reason we have such high incarceration rates in the US is mostly due to how and why we incarcerate people--not 'diversity'.
    – user1530
    Jan 4, 2018 at 18:24

4 Answers 4


There are several things at play that cause the US prison system to look pretty crummy in comparison to several other countries.

General societal hostility toward ex-convicts(Likely the most significant factor): Outside of a few states that have 'banned the box', many convicts have enormous difficulty finding work, finding a place to rent. Even if they find work, it's almost always going to be hovering around minimum wage. Faced with that ongoing discrimination, it's not really hard to imagine them turning back to crime to support themselves. It's actually more surprising that recidivism is only hovering in the 70s, rather than closer to 100%.

Cultural: Gang culture has infected our society https://www.colorado.edu/today/2017/03/22/gang-membership-seldom-originates-prison-new-study-suggests , and doesn't look as though it's going away any time soon. When a portion of your population glorifies violence, money, and is hostile to any form of authority, you're going to have a portion of population that will be exceptionally difficult to properly integrate into society (lack of integration almost inevitably leads to crime).

Perverse economic incentives: Incarceration has become big business, from prison unions protecting lucrative jobs, to companies being given monopolies within the prison system(Until the FCC stepped in, there were instances of charging over $1 a minute for calls). Even more perversely, the money being earmarked toward rehabilitation and diversion programs has started to spawn less than effective private entities to take that money(much in the same way the huge infusion of money into higher education caused questionable institutions to pop into existence to consume that surplus).

A reverse of privacy sensibilities: In most other industrialized countries, there is an acceptance of government intrusion of privacy, but other citizens snooping into your past is taboo, and made difficult by things such as 'the right to be forgotten' in the EU. With the advent of social media, and pervasive background checks, it's nearly impossible for someone with a record to move on from their past. There never really is a point where a former criminal can just move on, and behave like any other citizen.

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    The "difficulty finding work" part can't be understated. Every ex-con I've ever met is just a person trying to get by on several low-paying part time jobs. I would put this at the top of your answer
    – Gramatik
    Jan 4, 2018 at 17:59
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    @Gramatik I don't disagree. The lifelong discrimination following conviction (especially in the realms of finding a job, and finding a place to live) are easily the lion's share of recidivism in my opinion. Jan 4, 2018 at 18:06
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    "When a portion of your population glorifies violence, money, and is hostile to any form of authority" = that is the American motto--and not really at all specific to gangs. The issue with gangs is mostly related to poverty--and that we seem more interested in incarceration than attacking the social problems that breed gangs.
    – user1530
    Jan 4, 2018 at 18:27
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    @JackOfAllTrades234 the nitpick I have here is the implication that there are a class of Americans that are just simply "more deserving" of being locked up without rehabilitation. Intentional or not, this ignores the very real issues we have in this country with institutionalized racism in our justice system. We have a president that "glorifies violence, money, and is hostile to any form of authority". This is a very American attribute and is not a good argument against a certain class of people...since it's an attribute shared by most of our society, for better or worse.
    – user1530
    Jan 4, 2018 at 19:28
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    @JackOfAllTrades234 - part of the allure of gangs is as a stand in for the traditional, more stable family structure which has been decimated by both baked-in economic and opportunity disparities and.... wait for it..... our "incarcerate first" mentality. FWIW I didn't take your part about culture to be a "they can't help but be thugs" statement, though we hear that often enough I can understand why someone might assume that's where it was coming from. Jan 4, 2018 at 20:18

What do the statistics mean?

Are Norwegian prisons more effective than United States prisons? These statistics do not exist in a vacuum. Prisons have very little to do with rates of first offense. To the extent that deterrence matters, it is far more a result of law enforcement. In particular, the chance of punishment has a greater deterring effect than the strength of the punishment.

The US has a much higher offending rate than Norway. Consider the possibility that the recidivism factor is the same for both countries. But the higher offending rate produces a higher recidivism rate.

What's a recidivism factor? The amount that being imprisoned makes someone more or less likely to offend. It's the thing that prison can most affect.

A lower offending rate makes all the other rates look better. It reduces the incarceration rate directly. A lower offending rate also means that there is less pressure to protect people from the criminals by incarcerating them longer. Which also reduces the incarceration rate.

A lower offending rate reduces the recidivism rate as well. Someone who is less likely to offend the first time is also less likely to offend a second (or later) time. And of course, someone who never offends a second time won't offend a third or later time.

Population differences

In Norway, about a third (34%) of all crimes are committed by foreigners. Example source. These are people who can be deported after their sentence, giving them a very low recidivism rate.

In the US, immigrants are less likely to offend than the native born. Even though it is much easier for deported criminals to get back into the US. They just need to cross one land border. It's much harder to get through the controls for air and sea travel in Norway. This is especially true since most of the deported criminals aren't from adjacent countries but from places that are far away.

This suggests that Norwegians are simply less criminal than the world average. Interestingly, the US state with the largest Scandinavian population in total and second in percentage is low-crime Minnesota.

More statistics

Average sentence in Norway is eight months.

Average federal sentence in the US is thirty-seven and a half months. Some other sources say sixty-three months. The difference may be between the sentence at trial and the time actually served. I.e. they may be sentenced to sixty-three months at trial and only serve thirty-seven and a half. Or the difference might be federal versus state.

Either way, sentences in the US are four to eight times as long as in Norway on average. Some of this may be that the crimes are more serious (if Norway were a US state, its murder rate would be in the bottom ten), but a lot of it seems to be that sentences are longer for equivalent crimes.

The natural experiment

If it were true that recidivism were primarily a result of prison policy, we would expect that the states that were politically closest to the Norwegian policy would have the lowest recidivism rates. Those states would be the ones run by Democrats.

Three-year reincarceration rates by state (PDF).

The lowest rate is in Virginia, a traditionally moderate state that is just starting to lean liberal. Traditionally Virginia has had moderate politicians of either party. So law and order Democrats.

After that, we have Oklahoma and South Carolina, both law and order states. Then the more liberal Minnesota, with its large Scandinavian population. Florida, West Virginia, and Ohio are not known for their liberal policies. Oregon perhaps.

If we skip to the bottom, we should see a bunch of Republican states, right? After all, most states are Republican leaning. But Delaware is not a Republican state. Utah and Alaska are, but Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont are not.

Both California and New York are in the bottom half but towards the middle.

These are not results consistent with the claim that liberals are better at rehabilitation than conservatives. In fact, it is more consistent with the exact opposite conclusion.


We don't know.

We don't know if the Norwegian prison system is better. Although we do know that their results are better. We don't know if that is because of the differences or in spite of them.

We don't know why Norwegians are less likely to be first time offenders. We don't know why the few that are imprisoned are less likely to reoffend.

All we do know is that within the United States, the states with the three best recidivism results are nothing like Norway.

Anyone who tells you that they understand why the US is different from other countries on crime is guessing. They don't actually know because no one does. Their guess may be correct, but it probably isn't. There are a lot of mutually exclusive guesses. Only some of them can be right.

The US has a much more serious crime problem than does Europe. Why? Unknown. People comparing US policy to that of individual countries in Europe have to explain not just the difference between that country and the US, but also why the same comparison does not work when you swap the US with other countries with the same policy. And further, they should explain why US states are not able to get similar results, even though prison policy differs greatly between states.

  • 3
    You say "These statistics do not exist in a vacuum." but then neglect history and economic factors in your answer. Norway is one of the richest countries (per capita) in the world.
    – Roland
    Jan 5, 2018 at 9:43
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    Also, US democrats would be considered pretty (neo)liberal in European countries. They are not close to what is considered socialist or even the political middle in Europe.
    – Roland
    Jan 5, 2018 at 9:48
  • To help the paragraph about population differences, you could include a reference to this article: ncpa.org/sub/dpd/?Article_ID=21046 Given the disparities in American ethnic groups, it doesn't make sense to compare the effectiveness of American institutions without considering the ethnic make up of the people served.
    – Readin
    Jan 7, 2018 at 0:22

According to this article Norway prison system is very effective when compared to the one in US

Question: Why...?

The answer is in the aforementioned article:

So how does Norway accomplish this feat? The country relies on a concept called " restorative justice ," which aims to repair the harm caused by crime rather than punish people. This system focuses on rehabilitating prisoners.

The simple summary is that many nations, such as Norway, put a primary focus on rehabilitation. The US, in contrast, puts a primary focus on incarceration. Later in the article, Criminologist Bob Cameron sums it up thusly:

"Americans want their prisoners punished first and rehabilitated second."

  • 2
    This emphasizes something very important. What is supposed to be a desired outcome, along with others, is the ability to rehabilitate, which has been pushed way into the background by people wanting to profit, people practicing the politics of fear and divisiveness, and other politicians who want to burnish their "tough" credibility. Very sad, and very expensive to try and rectify. Jan 4, 2018 at 20:21
  • A spot on answer. "Americans want their prisoners punished", but they don't seem to think about what happens when those prisoners get out of prison. It's an example of a poorly thought out, uniquely American problem with a solution that's right in front of us.
    – userLTK
    Jan 5, 2018 at 4:02

Norway and the US are different.

  1. Norway has a population of about 4 million. The greater Washington DC metro region has about 4 million people. Norway has no equivalent to New York, Chicago, Houston, Detroit, or Los Angeles. Systems don’t always scale. It’s not likely that you could scale up Oslo by a factor of 10 and Oslo would be recognizable.
  2. Norway had slavery during its Viking period but that was a thousand years ago. The US has a more recent and substantially larger experience with slavery that continues to have effects on the nation.
  3. Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden have traditionally given women greater rights. The US has an uneven record.
  4. Norway has a more homogenous population and consequently greater cohesion. The wealth gap is smaller in Norway than in the US. The US is socially fragmented and that fragmentation is increasing. A smaller group of like minded people can make acceptable compromises easier than a large fragmented society.
  5. The North Sea Oil has given Norway, a historically poor country, a lot of wealth that provides services to its population. It has much nicer prisons that offer better services without tax payers feeling like they are unfairly burdened. Americans want their prisons cheap and spartan. Safe and humane prisons are viewed as a moral hazard.

Fundamentally the US and Norway are different. It will be interesting to see the impacts of the North Sea oil running out and immigration in Norways future.

  • Without touching on the topic of whether slavery is still having an impact on american crime rates, it's inaccurate to suggest Norway only participated in the slave trade 1000+ years ago. The reality is that it was only in the early 1800s that Denmark-Norway outlawed their participation in the slave trade. Jan 15, 2018 at 14:04
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    12 percent of Norway’s present population are not descended from African slaves brought to labor in Norway.
    – user17932
    Jan 15, 2018 at 14:51
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    Slavery happened centuries ago, it is not an excuse for a criminal today. It is very unlikely that they would even know anybody of their grand-grand-grand parents who where slaves yet.
    – Gray Sheep
    Apr 9, 2021 at 8:19
  • Slavery ended in 1865 in the US. The descendants of those slaves are still experiencing lingering effects. As one small example, much of the generational wealth of the US middle class was built by VA mortgages which were largely unavailable to Black veterans (the banks would not offer loans in areas where Blacks were permitted to buy.)
    – arp
    Feb 6 at 2:48

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