As part of our ongoing blog series highlighting the learnings of our Justice Solutions tour, Jesuit Social Services’ CEO JULIE EDWARDS writes about the strong social infrastructure that has resulted in Norway having an extremely low youth incarceration rate.

Jesuit Social Services CEO, Julie Edwards, outside the Ullersmo Youth Unit in Norway.

Sally Parnell, Executive Director of Programs at Jesuit Social Services, and I visited the Ullersmo Youth Unit, Oslo, Norway. We met with Lisa Nilsson, Deputy Head of the youth unit, and had an opportunity to look over the site. The first thing that strikes you is that it is situated in beautiful countryside, close to Oslo. The surrounding hills are visible through the transparent fence. The unit is a high security facility for four people. It is part of the Ullersomo Prison, but the youth unit is the only facility at this site, the main prison being many kilometres away.

The age of criminal responsibility in Norway is 15. People we met today were shocked to hear that it is 10 years in Australia.

Norway doesn’t have a separate youth justice system. Young people 15 years and older are dealt with in the one justice system, but there are special facilities for young people under 18 years who are imprisoned – two facilities each capable of housing four people (total of eight).

A few things stood out for us today. On inquiring about the low incarceration rate and how Norway has achieved this the point was made that Norway has a strong social infrastructure – including very good public health and education systems. It’s important to note this – after all, Jesuit Social Services is not in the business of ensuring that we have strong corrections systems, rather we are concerned to ‘build a just society’ where everyone gets the opportunity to flourish, and a key feature of that is preventing crime in the first place, diverting people from the criminal justice system wherever possible and intervening strongly to (re)socialise, educate and treat those who end up in the system including those in prison.

The four young people in Ullersmo Youth Unit had committed very serious crimes. That raised the question for us about the rest of the young people in Norway who had committed crimes, serious crimes, but who were not in prison. We learnt that these young people are dealt with in the community – through Youth Punishment, Probation, or Youth Follow Up (more about those later). So while many countries have the expression that ‘prison is only used as a last resort’, it struck me that in Norway in relation to young people, it really is the case.

At the youth unit there is a high ratio of staff to young people.

Half the staff are social workers, half prison officers – and the latter are well qualified with two years training in areas including ethics, human rights, multicultural competence, psychology, sociology, criminology, law, social work, moral philosophy, re-integration, security.

A couple of features of the prison system in Norway stand out. Here punishment is understood to be the loss of freedom and, apart from this, prisoners are deemed to have the same rights as any other member of the community. The aim is to reduce the harmful effects of loss of liberty as far as possible, with security being no stricter than necessary. For example, for those with a sentence of two years or less, they will be sent to a low security prison – they could walk out of such a facility, the doors to their rooms (not ‘cells’) aren’t locked, they have unsupervised visits, take responsibility for various aspects of their lives (e.g. getting themselves up on time), and have varying degrees of opportunity to move outside the prison for particular purposes (sometimes with staff, sometimes without).

One of their guiding principles is ‘normality’. This is seen as an important goal in itself (because it is humane), but also because it facilitates a better reintegration into the community post release – and the goal is to reduce recidivism. Another principle is ‘importing’ staff from the broader community to deliver as many functions as possible such as teaching and health.

This reinforces the notion that prisoners are citizens with the same rights as others in the community, and therefore the same institutions that deliver education and health services in the community come to the prison to deliver those services there.

One limitation of the system here is that once a young person turns 18 they are moved to an adult prison – currently there is only one facility for 15 to 18 year olds, however more are in the pipeline.