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The Rise of a More Punitive State: On the Attenuation of Norwegian Penal Exceptionalism in an Era of Welfare State Transformation


While sociologists of punishment have been interested in the notion of Nordic penal exceptionalism, rapid changes are taking place in the penal policies of one of the members of the Nordic zone. Norway’s penal state is growing increasingly punitive, and penal exceptionalism appears to be on the wane, evidenced by a growing incarceration rate, increasingly punitive sentiments in the population, moral panics over street crime, raised sentencing levels, the forcible detention and extradition of asylum seekers, punitive drug policies, and the creation of segregated correctional facilities for stigmatized foreign offenders. Penal transformation should be understood as the outcome of symbolic contestation between politicians eager to present themselves as “tough on crime,” increasing differentiation of the social structure that has led to the declining fortunes of rehabilitationism, and a nascent neoliberalization of the welfare state. As a consequence, Europe’s penal landscape may be growing more homogeneous.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Drawing on Garland (2013), the notion of the penal state is used throughout as a neutral, “non-evaluative” label referring to the sprawling web of interconnected criminal justice policies and institutions that are tasked with punishing offenders. Unlike Garland, however, the term is used to denote both the “leadership elites” and the ground-level decisions made by the courts, prisons, parole boards, probation agencies, street-level bureaucrats, and related venues, chiefly because these institutions are of signal importance in shaping the texture of punishment as it is enacted, enforced, and experienced in a frequently dispersed, decentered, and agonistic manner (Goodman et al. 2014).

  2. 2.

    Punitive sentiment refers to the aggregate of public support for criminal justice policies that punish criminal offenders (Ramirez 2013). While actual policy output is the result of a complex interplay of agents, forces, and interests—which could be thought of as being the product of ongoing struggles between members of what Page (2011), drawing on Bourdieusian field theory, calls the “penal field”—public opinion plays at least a partial role in shaping criminal justice policies. Understanding the extent of punishment in a society therefore mandates paying close attention to how the public thinks about punishment, while bearing in mind that public opinion is in part an artefact constructed by the methods one uses to plumb the depths of popular sentiment (Hutton 2005), public opinion is itself subject to feedback loops in which policy outputs shape public opinion inputs, and policy output is itself not a one-to-one expression of public sentiment but the product of struggles between agents (see also Frost 2010).

  3. 3.

    However, there are a number of methodological issues that suggest that caution should be exercised in making assumptions about punitive sentiment on the basis of surveys and opinion polls. Balvig et al. (2015) suggest that Nordic public opinion on criminal justice issues appears to be less severe when additional information about hypothetical offenders and offenses is provided, and that the public is less punitive than judges when provided with “vignettes” about hypothetical crimes. What matters more than the real incidence of punitive sentiment may be the ways in which political elites appropriate and construct a representation of public sentiment concerning appropriate levels of punishment.

  4. 4.

    It should be noted that while sentencing levels have been raised for violent and sexual offenses, the most common decision made by public prosecutors in the case of sex crimes is that of dismissal.

  5. 5.

    These figures are extracted from the Correctional Services StatRes database, available online at The operating expenditure figures have been re-calculated in 2013 NOK equivalents in order to adjust for inflation. Recalculated figures were produced using the Statistics Norway’s Consumer Price Index (CPI) calculator:

  6. 6.

    These calculations are based on figures from the World Prison Brief (2013) and the Norwegian Correctional Services (2014). In 2013, there were a total of 1176 prison sentences waiting to be fulfilled in the “sentencing line.” The average length of sentences was 234 days in 2013. Converting this into a rate of imprisonment per 100,000 persons would generate an added 14.73 inmates per 100,000 persons. A counter-charge could be made that the ceteris paribus assumption masks the fact that other societies might also have “sentencing lines” or their national equivalent. As with all comparative criminological statistics, caution should be the order of the day when drawing conclusions on the basis of divergent modes of categorization.

  7. 7.

    The actual contribution of drug crime to the prison population is probably higher. Persons who have committed multiple types of offenses only appear in the official statistics with offense category that carries the longest maximum sentence.

  8. 8.

    Crime victimization surveys are not regularly carried out in Norway. Instead one is forced to rely on police-recorded crime, which risks underreporting or skewing representations of the “real” incidence of crime (Walklate 2007: 58–66). Van Kesteren et al. (2000) suggest that Norway’s crime victimization has increased slightly between 1988 and 2003/2004, but the findings are based on two entirely different survey instruments: 1989 ICVS data and 2003–2004 EU ICS data. See also Falck et al. (2003) for a survey of crime trends between 1950 and 2000, suggesting that the number of reported offenses per 100,000 persons doubled between 1980 and 2000. Again, however, this may be more indicative of police strategies and reporting habits than the “real” incidence of crime.

  9. 9.

    Other data sources corroborate this tendency. Official crime statistics in Norway suggest that the number of murder victims remained stable and low throughout the 2000 s with 33 victims in 2004 and 29 victims in 2012. There was, however, a spike the preceding year, with 77 victims from the 22 July 2011 terrorist attacks alone, and in the following year, with 45 victims in 2013 (National Crime Investigation Service 2013: 2).

  10. 10.

    These findings are based on searches in the Retriever Database (

    Searches were confined to the Norwegian national press and employed the search term “robbery wave” (“ransbølge*”) with an asterisk appended to capture suffixes after the word stem.

  11. 11.

    Particularly important prison jobs were remunerated with an additional 24 kroner per day. Regulations governing prison inmate pay is outlined by the Norwegian Correctional Services in an annually renewed directive:

  12. 12.

    Prisoners in Norway are paid some six times a greater amount (in nominal terms) compared with the minimum wage received by prisoners employed under the auspices of Her Majesty’s Prison Service in England and Wales.

  13. 13.

    The number of community sentences increased from 750 sentences in 2002–2427 sentences in 2012, while the sum total of unconditional prison sentences grew from 9041 sentences to 11,676 sentences in the same time interval, according to data from Statistics Norway (

  14. 14.

    The concept of “dualization” has been used by political scientists to study the transformation of labor market regimes; it has been mobilized to describe the unfurling of a two-track system in labor protection, job quality, and employment stability in recent decades, as labor market segmentation arises between “insiders” in standard, protective, high-quality employment and “outsiders” in precarious, irregular, and atypical employment (see e.g. Thelen 2012). The concept can be applied to penological inquiries to capture the split between generous rehabilitationist policies, reserved for national “insiders,” and penal austerity, targeted towards non-citizen “outsiders.”


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I am grateful to participants at a Department of Criminology, Stockholm University workshop in February 2015 and members of the Norwegian Institute for Alcohol and Drug Research (SIRUS) Qualitative Research Work Group for their sharp analytic comments on previous versions of the argument presented here. I am particularly indebted to Silje Andresen, William Bülow, Eivind Grip Fjær, Klara Hermansson, Willy Pedersen, Sveinung Sandberg, Henrik Tham, two anonymous reviewers, and the editor of Critical Criminology for their incisive and constructive remarks.

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Shammas, V.L. The Rise of a More Punitive State: On the Attenuation of Norwegian Penal Exceptionalism in an Era of Welfare State Transformation. Crit Crim 24, 57–74 (2016).

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  • Welfare State
  • Incarceration Rate
  • Asylum Seeker
  • Prison Population
  • European Social Survey