Could Norway’s mental health focus reduce incarceration in Michigan?

Oct 10, 2019 by

Advocates say Norway shows how America and its states could better balance government spending between criminal justice and mental health services

Karen Bouffard, The Detroit News

Halden, Norway — Fredrik Soerfjordmo sits at an Apple computer in a sun-filled print shop, designing artwork to be reproduced on a ceramic coffee mug.

In the past six years, the 30-year-old Norwegian has earned a high school diploma, as well as diplomas in photography, typography and digital tools. Soerfjordmo said he also has gained insight into why he once stabbed a man to death.

“I’ve been going to a psychologist and psychiatrist and working on all of this so I can live with myself,” he said. “All of this that I did is very far from where I am.”

At Halden Prison in Norway, the guards carry no guns and the inmates have a considerable amount of freedom Karen Bouffard, The Detroit News

Soerfjordmo is serving his sixth year of a 15-year sentence at Halden Prison in Norway, which is considered the gold standard for the healthy rehabilitation of inmates. The  recidivism rates in Michigan and Norway suggest his chances of remaining free after serving his sentence are greater than for inmates released from U.S. prisons.

Norway has gained an international reputation for effectively rehabilitating prisoners, while officials in Michigan and across the country face burgeoning jail populations and costs — fueled significantly by the mentally ill.

Small elements of Michigan’s criminal justice system reflect Norway’s rehabilitative approach, from drug treatment courts to art and music therapy at a facility that treats the state’s most severely mentally ill inmates. States such as North Dakota and Oregon have more aggressively changed how they handle prisoners based on the Norwegian system, hoping to improve treatment and reduce the number of repeat offenders.

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The Detroit News recently visited Halden Prison, as well as mental health programs and psychiatric hospitalsin Norway, to study the intersection of criminal justice and mental health in that country. Michigan has an incarceration rate that is more than eight times higher than Norway’s, and the state is studying ways to reduce crowded jails.

Michigan’s search for solutions comes as mass shootings across the country have cast a spotlight on mental health.

Critics argue that failings in the United States’ mental health system have turned U.S. jails and prisons into revolving doors for people with mental illness — a problem they say contributes to high incarceration rates while making some mentally ill prisoners sicker. They contend Norway, with a population about half of Michigan’s nearly 10 million people, provides an example of how America and its states could better balance government spending between criminal justice and mental health services.

Norway spent $129,222 per prisoner in 2018 compared with $38,051 spent per prisoner in Michigan, according to their respective government agencies. Federal prisons averaged $36,299 per inmate in 2017, the latest year available, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Norway spends more in part because its cost of living is higher than the United States’. But critics contend the United States spends more in the long run overall because its inmates serve longer sentences and are more likely to return to prison.

Source: Could Norway’s mental health focus reduce incarceration in Michigan?

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