Sweden has experienced such a sharp drop in the number of prison admissions over the past two years that its justice authorities have decided to close down four prisons and a remand center.
“We have seen an out-of-the-ordinary decline in the number of inmates,” Sweden’s prison and probation services head Nils Oberg said. “Now we have the opportunity to close down a part of our infrastructure that we don’t need at this point of time.”
Prison numbers in Sweden, which have been falling by about 1 percent a year since 2004, dropped by 6 percent between 2011 and last year and are expected to do the same again both this year and next year, Oberg said.
As a result, the prison service has this year closed down prisons in the towns of Aby, Haja, Batshagen and Kristianstad, two of which will probably be sold, and two of which will be passed for temporary use to other government authorities.
Oberg said that while nobody knew for sure why prison numbers had dropped so steeply, he hoped that Sweden’s liberal prison approach, with its strong focus on rehabilitating prisoners, had played at least a part.
“We certainly hope that the efforts we invest in rehabilitation and preventing relapse of crime has had an impact, but we don’t think that this could explain the entire drop of 6 percent,” he said.
In an opinion piece in Sweden’s DN newspaper in which he announced the closures, Oberg said that Sweden needed to work even harder on rehabilitating prisoners, doing more to help them once they have returned to society.
Swedish courts have given more lenient sentences for drugs offenses following a ruling of the Swedish Supreme Court in 2011, explaining at least part of the sudden drop in admissions. There were about 200 fewer people serving sentences for drugs offenses in Sweden in March last year than a year previously, Oberg said.
Sweden’s prison services will retain the option to reopen two of the closed prisons, should the number of inmates rise.
“We are not at the point of concluding that this is a long-term trend and that this is a change in paradigm,” Oberg said. “What we are certain of is that the pressure on the criminal justice system has dropped markedly in recent years.”
Stockholm University criminology professor Hanns von Hofer said that much of the fall in prison numbers could be attributed to a recent shift in policy toward probationary sanctions, instead of short prison sentences for minor thefts, drugs offenses and violent crimes.
Between 2004 and last year, the number of people jailed for theft, drug offenses and violent crimes fell by 36 percent, 25 percent and 12 percent respectively, he said.
According to official data, the Swedish prison population has dropped by nearly a sixth since it peaked at 5,722 in 2004.
Last year, there were 4,852 people in prison in Sweden, out of a population of 9.5 million.