Crime & Punishment: Homegrown terrorist case challenges Norway’s faith in prisoner rehabilitation

The Norwegian justice system delivered the first legal setback to the confessed perpetrator of last week's devastating attacks that killed 76 people, when the presiding judge ruled his arraignment hearing closed to the media today.

Anders Behring Breivik 32, had apparently been hoping for a broad media platform to promote his white supremacist, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant views. He had already drafted a 1,500-page manifesto laying out his rationale for the bombing and shootings that devastated Norway last Friday. (It turns out, however, that at least a chunk of Breivik's manifesto, entitled "2083: A European Declaration of Independence," and compiled over three years, was plagiarized from an earlier treatise by the Unabomber.)

"Mr. Breivik started reading from his manifesto in court but was asked to stop," police told reporters, the BBC reported. "When he asked why the hearing was closed, the judge gave him the reasons."

Since police apprehended Breivik on the island of Utoya Friday, he has freely acknowledged that he carried out the bombing of central Oslo that killed eight people and the shooting massacre that took the lives of 68 young people attending a camp at Utoya. However, he does not accept criminal responsibility for his acts, judge Kim Heger told journalists in a brief press conference after the hearing Monday. The defendant "argu[ed] the killings had been necessary to prevent Europe being taken over by Muslims," the BBC reported.

Judge Kim Heger ordered Breivik held for eight weeks, four of them in total isolation, pending trial on charges of terrorism.

But the question remains: How will the Scandinavian nation's traditionally lenient legal system deal with what it has never faced before--a homegrown terrorist who proudly owns up to committing the worst acts of violence Norway has suffered since World War II?

Norway has no death penalty, and a maximum 21-year prison sentence. However, if convicted, Breivik's sentence could be extended for up to five years at a time if he's deemed a continuing threat, explained Carol Sandbye, with the Norway prosecutor's office, in an article by MediaPost's Peter O'Neill published Sunday in the Montreal Gazette.

Sandbye said Norway's "General Civil Penal Code gives the state prosecutor the right to seek an extension of sentences beyond the 21-year maximum for up to five years at a time, on the condition that the inmate is deemed to be a 'high risk' of repeating serious offenses," O'Neill writes.

But while it's "technically possible" to serially extend the five-year prison sentences beyond the 21 years, Sandby said that the Norwegian justice system generally does not exercise that option.

"You can, but it's highly unlikely," Sandbye told O'Neill. "That would mean that person is going to spend his entire life in jail."

What's wrong with that? Norwegians strongly believe in the rehabilitation of prisoners to prepare them for a successful reintegration into society after their incarceration.

Norway "takes the mantra of rehabilitation to an extreme," Foreign Policy's Robert Zeliger explains. "The Norwegian prison system takes seriously the philosophy that inmates should be treated as humanely as possible and that jail sentences should be seen less as punishment than as an opportunity to reintegrate troubled people back into society."

Norwegians tend to see "acts of extreme violence ... as aberrant events, not symptoms of national decay," Time Magazine's William Lee Adams reported last year. Norwegian prison guards undergo two years of training, "don't carry guns ... and call prisoners by their first names and play sports and eat meals with them," Adams reported.

That approach -- and its underlying premise that people who commit crimes are troubled who should be given a second chance and prepared to live again amongst society -- can perhaps be credited with Norway's extremely low prison-recidivism rate—only about 20 percent of those imprisoned in Norway commit a repeat crime that sends them back to prison. Recidivism figures in the United States and the United Kingdom, by contrast, are much higher-- 50 to 60 percent, Time reported.

Indeed, Norway, a country of 5 million people, only has about 3,300 prison inmates, according to Time. That gives Norway a ratio of prison inmates to the country's overall population roughly ten times lower than that of the United States.

"That's what the world needs to understand about Norway," Sandbye told PostMedia. "This incident represents our loss of innocence, because we've been a very safe country to live in until now. There's been no reason to keep people in prison for life."

Whether Breivik will test Norway's ideas about crime and punishment -- and whether some people don't deserve a chance to live in freedom among them again -- remains to be seen.

For his part, Breivik indicated to court officials today he's prepared to spend the rest of his life in prison. And his father, a former Norwegian diplomat from whom Breivik is estranged, told the UK Telegraph he thinks his son "should have taken his own life, too" for his acts. "That's what he should have done."

Update: The Norway prosecutor office's Carol Sandbye said Tuesday that Breivik might be charged with crimes against humanity, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years, the New York Times reported.]

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