A Holistic View of an Alternative Justice System

“The battle is between behavior and addiction, and prison staff try to make sure they never return – the focus is on rehabilitation.” That was one of the observations made by one of the students in the two-week Field Study of Criminal Justice Reform and Innovation in Sweden course last June. Eight of the group of 12 recently offered an overview of their experiences to an engaged audience of students and faculty.

The goal of the program was to offer students the opportunity to study the Swedish Criminal Justice system and to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses and possible applicability to the U.S. criminal justice system. The students shared a common interest in social justice and the law, but they also recognized that they were acculturated to the U.S. system.

“There is a different way of thinking, and this trip afforded them the opportunity to witness that. They were able to see the differences in policing, courts, prisons, said Frank Anechiarico, the Maynard-Knox Professor of Government and Law, who co-taught the course with Doran Larson, the Walcott-Bartlett Chair of Ethics and Christian Evidences. Despite the students’ focused interest in the topic, they are majoring in a broad range of areas from art to psychology to government and environmental studies.

Here are a few of the comments and observations the students offered during their presentation about the trip:

“I was amazed by how humane and people-based the system was. They have 12-step programs in the prisons, programs to prevent recidivism, programs to promote family relations.”

“I was struck by the gender balance of those in positions of authority.”

“Prisoners don’t lose their rights. They can vote and have their own bathrooms. They are treated like people, not animals.”

“They are more compassionate, but I was taken aback when I discovered that the police don’t need a warrant to search. They don’t have the same history of racism and structural problems in Sweden.”

 “Prisoners were called clients – it was a whole different system. There isn’t tension. The humanity and respect are incredible. I think it reduces recidivism as well. How can this be translated in the U.S.? Our system is ineffective.”

“What the Swedes have in place of politics is research in their own prison system.”

“This program was so game-changing,” Alex Scheuer ’18 summarized. “It offered a holistic look … being able to read, write, hear about public policy, court policy, incarceration policy, a complete perspective on the justice system.”

He continued later, “We met with officials from every step of the justice process, including politicians, police officials, criminal court judges, prosecutors, prison officials, and inmates. …Through this holistic process, we not only learned a great deal about comparative justice, but about Swedish culture as well, and how it plays into the philosophy of the Swedish justice system.”

The course was partially funded by the Endeavor Fund.

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