Anders Breivik Gets Off Easy: Norway's Maximum Sentence Is 21 Years

Anders Breivik won’t get the death penalty—or even life in jail. But Norwegians are unlikely to complain.

Scanpix Norway / Reuters

What punishment can Norwegian shooter Anders Behring Breivik expect if found guilty of the monstrous mass murder to which he already confessed?

Certainly not the death penalty, which Norway abolished in 1902. Not life imprisonment, which doesn’t exist in Norway either. The maximum sentence: 21 years. In extremely rare cases, if a judge finds a criminal unfit to return to society, an additional five years can be tacked on. On Tuesday state prosecutors were dusting off a special, never-used law that allows 30 years for “crimes against humanity,” which they could apply to the case. But normally, even murderers are fully eligible for parole after just a few years in prison.

In a country that considers the idea of punishment barbaric, and where the purpose of prison is to reacclimatize the prisoner to society, even jail doesn’t look so bad. Take Halden Prison, a maximum-security facility for murderers and rapists a few miles from the Swedish border. Completed last year for $280 million to house 250 inmates, its living quarters are bright and airy, with mint-green walls and IKEA-style furniture in varnished natural wood. Looking more like a college dorm than a maximum-security jail, each cell comes with a flat-screen TV, a private bath, and a large unbarred window. Inmates take cooking classes and work out with personal trainers; there’s a deluxe gym with a rock-climbing wall as well as a professional music studio for prisoners’ bands. Half the guards are women, which prison governor Are Hoidal says creates a less aggressive atmosphere. For the same reason, the guards don’t carry weapons and freely mingle with the inmates. Prisoners even fill out questionnaires to rate the level of service.

Most prisoners are eligible after only a few years to switch to a low-security “open prison,” with laxer rules, frequent furlough, and early parole.

Norwegians, like most Europeans, are convinced their more lenient system of justice works. After their stay in one of Norway’s deluxe prisons, only 20 percent of former convicts end up back in jail after two years, compared to nearly 60 percent in America. With only 71 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants, Norway’s incarceration rate is less than a tenth of America’s, whose prison population of 743 per 100,000 is the highest in the world, just exceeding Russia’s, and many times that of any Western European country.

With Norwegians still grief-stricken and in shock, it’s too early for such a debate. But there’s unlikely to be one. Like many Europeans, most Norwegians take great pride in rejecting a justice system based on revenge and retribution, as hard as it is to apply that clement attitude to someone like Breivik.

Still, not everyone agrees that things should stay that way. In Germany, where the criminal-justice system is almost as lenient, there’s a growing backlash against such practices as early release of repeat offenders, or sending violent juvenile criminals on state-financed adventure junkets to exotic vacation locales.

What’s more, Europe’s liberal justice system isn’t as old and deeply ingrained as Europeans like to claim. For all of the French outrage at America’s rough treatment of criminals and suspects—including Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who would hardly have faced arrest in his home country, let alone made to do a denigrating perp walk—France was still guillotining criminals as late as 1977. As a dark-skinned immigrant, you might not want to see a French prison or migrant detention center from the inside. And Germany’s abolition of the death penalty in 1949, which today’s Germans see as proof they’ve overcome the brutality of the Nazi era, was the brainchild of a far-right politician who wanted to protect Nazi war criminals from execution by the Allied occupation authorities after World War II.

None of this is likely to matter to Norwegians, or to most Europeans now. “Even if a lot of people think 21 years is too little, in Scandinavian countries it’s deeply ingrained that criminals should have a second chance in society,” says Geir Ruud, the Norwegian editor of Ekstra Bladet, a Danish newspaper. “These are the values all those kids who were killed believed in, and the values Breivik fought against. If we let his crime change our societies, then he will have won.”