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Class Returns to Ask: Can Sweden’s Progressive Legal System Find its Way to U.S.?


Twelve Hamilton students visited Sweden on a two-week study trip, looking at Swedish prisons, courts and policing practice. Ryan Bloom ’18 blogged about the experience. Following is her final report on a visit to border control, a police precinct and the court system.

June 10: Days 11-13

Our last few days in Stockholm were packed! On Tuesday we took a bus to Arlanda Airport, where we spoke with a border control police officer and a civilian member of the border control staff. Our guides helped put a lot of law enforcement and security issues in perspective for us. For one thing, since Sweden is part of the Schengen region (a handful of European countries with open borders once you’re in the region), the border control officers and staff work to secure the border for the entire Schengen region—not just Sweden. In practice, this means that they must have a way to identify threats and wanted criminals from all Schengen countries. We then learned about the vast intelligence networks among international border control officers and how the types of threats and most common methods of deception are changing on a weekly basis.

Most surprising, though, was that the officers let us into the border control booths to watch their procedures and profiling as it happened. In just one deplaning (from Los Angeles, so it was marked as a “low threat” level) we saw someone with an expired passport, some people get through with no questions other than “where are you going?” or “how long are you staying?” some people get bombarded with questions and demands for proof of the length of their stay, how much money they had, where they were staying, who they were staying with, and what they would be doing.

As the officers say, in many cases, especially on the low threat level flights, it’s more important to pay attention to the passenger’s demeanor while being questioned, rather than the content of the answers. All of us were shocked to be allowed into the control booths with really no check on whether or not we were filming or taking pictures of people’s potentially sensitive information. This helped to reinforce and further develop our understanding of the overall culture of trust in Sweden.

On Thursday we visited the police precinct in Södermalm, which is the most densely populated region in Stockholm. The officers there talked about how the recent immigration influx has changed the nature of their work. Most notably, officers feel more threats of violence on the streets. This is especially probative since Swedish law disallows the use of handcuffs when detaining individuals as a standard practice.

Here, we also learned more about the intricate legal process of detaining, arresting, trying and convicting someone. Interestingly, there are strict rules for how long each step of the process can take until stage just before trial, which has no time limit. In other words, after being officially arrested and a judge deems probable or likely cause that you should stand trial, you may stay in detention for years before actually having a trial. Though Sweden has consistently faced criticism for these practices, those in the system say it is unlikely to change anytime soon, and see it as a necessary evil.

From there, we visited the district court in Stockholm, where we met with the “president” of the Court (essentially the head judge of the court) and a younger judge who’d just recently started working there. Both women talked about their responsibilities as judges inside and outside of the courtroom. Most surprising, for me, was that the judges in Sweden are expected and encouraged to provide perspective on policy changes. Though policymakers are not required to listen to or agree with those perspectives, they almost always do.

sweden trip 2017
Hamilton students at "Meatballs for the People" in the Södermalmin neighborhood of Stockholm.

Overall, I can say that the trip to Stockholm was an enriching and surprisingly emotional experience. On our last day all of the students and professors gathered to talk about our experience and several students mentioned how the trip had “changed their worldview” and “restored faith in the goodness of humanity.”

Reflecting on the trip, for me, it was a deeply moving but also frustrating experience, as I felt unsure of how any of the progressive policies we’d seen in Stockholm could possibly be transferred or adapted to the States without an overall shift in cultural attitude. Others expressed a newfound energy and motivation going back home, and explained that the trip had helped them identify specific places to start changing American policy.

I know I speak on behalf of the students and professors on this trip when I say we are all grateful to have had this experience. Traveling to another country to experience a different culture is already a profound experience, but being able to do so in an academic setting with students and faculty as intellectually motivated as they are at Hamilton is another experience entirely.

We covered a lot of material that I had to basically skim over for this blog, so if anyone has any questions about specific areas of the Swedish criminal justice system, feel free to contact me at ebloom@hamilton.edu and I’ll do my best to answer them! 

Tack så mycket for reading!


June 6: Days 7-10

Our weekend in Stockholm was our first truly unstructured time to really explore the sights of the city. We delved more deeply into the foodie culture and discovered the love for secondhand and vintage shopping (Swedes love refreshing their closets, and this is widely recognized as the cheapest and most sustainable way to do so).

Sweden
Vasa, the world’s largest recovered warship.

On Saturday we ventured out to Vasamuseet to see the world’s largest recovered warship. Our tour guide at the museum, a short and spunky woman with blue hair and a nose piercing (although Swedes tend to be more socially conservative, this doesn’t apply to piercings, tattoos, or hair coloring, which are fairly popular forms of self expression), walked us through the history of the ship: from its conception to creation, and ultimately to its absurdly quick demise. Vasa was built as a warship for a war with Poland, lavishly decorated in the honor of the King Adolphus, and boasted 64 bronze 1-ton cannons.

At that time, no blueprints or written plans were used in the planning of construction. Instead, the knowledge of shipbuilding was learned from practice and passed down orally. Unfortunately for Vasa, this ship’s main builder had no experience with a ship of this size, and the final product ended up being much too top-heavy, resulting in extreme instability. Ultimately, Vasa sank less than a kilometer from port when a gust of wind pulled the sides of the ship down, and the cannon ports filled with water. Miraculously, however, the salt-concentration of the Baltic Sea preserved the ship in the water for 331 years.

In 1961, the Swedish government successfully lifted it from the sea and was able to restore it using about 97% original material. What we now see in this ship and museum is a commitment to cultural heritage and a willingness to expend great sums of money to that end.

Sweden
At police headquarters with Anders Hall and Otto Petersson.

Yesterday, we returned to our busy schedule with a visit to the National Police Headquarters in Stockholm. There, we discussed the organizational policies and principles of centralization with Anders Hall, head of development in the National Operations Department, and Otto Petersson, professor of political science at Linnaeus University (he also spent time lecturing and conducting research at Hamilton). We learned more about how the culture of trust extends not only to the welfare system, but also to police, which effectively grants law enforcement officials a longer leash than perhaps American law enforcement gets in the media and popular discussion.

I was most surprised by Petersson’s research involving police culture and the different perspectives that officers take on how strictly they “stick to the books” when they work the street. For example, Petersson found that officers who had one year of field work in between two years at the academy were more likely to become less legalist and more autonomist once they were certified after academy than those who received field training after the academy.

We then went to Swedish Parliament, where we met with Anti Avsan, a current member of the Committee on Justice in Parliament. Avsan, who is unique in his committee for his past experience as a police officer and as a judge, shed light on the current issues facing politicians. Most important were the issues in immigration and migration, gang-related violence, and reducing drug addiction. Avsan also expressed concern for the continuing rise of the Sweden Democrats (an alt-right nationalist party that just polled at about 20%).

I found it most interesting, however, to hear from Avsan how a background in law is uncommon for most politicians—a background in law enforcement even more so. This obviously contrasts greatly with career politicians in the States, but certainly reflects a desire to distinguish professions. This concept was important to Avsan, specifically regarding the court system, “Judges should be judges; police officers should be police officers; social workers should be social workers,” (in other words, he does not favor the blending of professions and responsibilities that arguably exists to some extent in our legal system that’s largely based on discretion) but could certainly apply to the political sphere as well. 

At this point, we’re more than halfway done with the trip. Though the days early last week seemed to last forever, now it’s hard to believe we’re already talking about the logistics of our departure. To me, it’s clear that all of the students have been able to achieve some clarity of focus on the topics of their later independent research papers: questions are more pointed, more tailored, and follow-up questions are common. I’m excited to see what else we can accomplish in the week ahead! 


June 2: Days 4-6

Swedish prison tour
The group with Hinseberg prison officers. Hinseberg is Sweden's largest prison for women.

Early Wednesday morning (May 31), we boarded a bus to Hinseberg prison, which is the largest of six all-women’s prisons in Sweden. With a maximum capacity of less than 100 women, Hinseberg presents an open and spacious campus in the Swedish countryside. Since it’s designated as a medium security prison, it has no cement wall enclosure—only a twin set of chain-link fences adorned with barbed wire—allowing inmates to see the sprawling fields around them and the sheep that graze there. 

The energy inside the prison and among the staff was similar to Österåken in its emphasis on rehabilitation and healing, allowing for an intangible though easily perceived sense of positivity to flow throughout the grounds. For example, the officers, who self-identify as both guards and social workers welcomed us to the prison (they even put up an American flag at the main entrance for us!) and brought us to a local restaurant for lunch after our tour to continue discussing our studies.

Further, we visited the different areas for occupational work on our tour, which include a sewing room (Hinseberg prisoners make all of the clothing for Swedish women’s prisons), a packing room, a woodworking area, areas for five or six welders, and an enclosed garden.

Of everything at the prison, however, I was most profoundly struck by what one of the occupational managers said about his purpose and motivation for working at Hinseberg. He told us that he used to work in marketing, and initially only worked at Hinseberg part-time. After one year he decided to stay on full-time because, he said, “I used to sell things to people, now I sell the idea of a better life.”

The next day, we had our first journaling workshop with Thomas Lavelle, a lecturer at SSE who has also been accompanying us on many of our visits and tours. Lavelle helped us consider different motivations and approaches to journaling so that we could look back on our trip here in the future and have useful tools and artifacts to incorporate in our research papers.

We then learned about one fairly new treatment approach in a Swedish prison called Kumla from University of Stockholm professor Lena Roxell. She discussed her work as a criminologist in studying the “monastery route” at Kumla. Though we’ve been here less than a week, this immediately raised some eyebrows in the classroom, since we have heard over and over here how secular Sweden is.

The “monastery route” can perhaps better be described as an intensive meditation practice that starts by teaching meditative and reflective practices through both religious and spiritual texts, as preparation for several silent retreats. Over the course of several years, inmates following the “monastery route” will take two, one-week silent retreats and one 30-day silent retreat where the only person they can speak to is a priest.

After completing these retreats, inmates get sent to a different prison for the remainder of their sentence to be able to follow the meditative and silent practices on a more daily basis. Though there’s not a lot of data on the effectiveness of this treatment program as of yet, it’s telling of a completely different type of administrative approach to policymaking.

While we’ve had excellent opportunities for interviewing staff and collecting first-hand research these past few days, we’ve also enjoyed a sampling of Stockholm’s “foodie” culture.

After our studies on Thursday, I went with other students to the opening night of  “Smaka på Stockholm” (Taste of Stockholm), a massive summer celebration with local food trucks and restaurants in Kungsträdgården (King’s Garden).

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An alley in the Old City, Gamla Stan.

We followed this up with an organized food tour of the Old City on Friday. This tour, led by a local Swede, brought us to an eclectically decorated Danish open-face sandwich shop, our favorite meatball restaurant (“Meatballs for the People,” which we visited on Monday), a traditional Bangladeshi restaurant, a family-owned Greek restaurant with the best olive oil and tzatziki I’ve ever had, Sweden’s best and most authentic Chinese restaurant, and finally a fish shop where we sampled herring and cheeses with different types of toppings.

These types of non-academic experiences are fascinating and have really helped me get a better sense for the culture and expectations here. Though I, and many Americans, typically assume that Sweden is completely homogenous and assimilative in its immigration policies, the racial, ethnic, and religious diversity is more prominent than I had expected, and has far-reaching implications on crime and social expectations that I hope to learn more about in the week ahead!


May 30: Days 1-3

Three days ago we boarded a plane in New York; some of us already friends, some of us strangers. Over those 20-odd hours of air travel, we landed in Arlanda International Airport in Stockholm as companions and colleagues. Together, us 12 students, two faculty (professors Frank Anechiarico and Doran Larson), and one Utica judge (Ralph Eannace) are here with the collective goal of studying the Swedish Criminal Justice system and evaluating its strengths and weaknesses, especially as compared to the American Criminal Justice System. The students will use this on-the-ground research in Sweden in complement with individual research to write a paper focusing on an aspect of the justice systems back home and abroad.

To study this, it’s important to step outside the numbers and the on-paper qualities that we could simply read about. Seeing the culture that informs and holds up this system is just as important. Similarly, being able to ask questions of those who work in different parts of the system, as we’ve done previously in the U.S., tremendously benefits this research. 

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Pop-up flower shops in Haymarket Square. Photo: Ryan Bloom '18

On our first day, we quickly learned about Swedish culture when having “traditional pizza.” Here, we received awkward stares from local Swedes when we tried drinking sparkling water or soda from the bottle instead of a glass, and when we tried to eat pizza with our hands instead of with a fork and knife. When we were loudly talking and laughing about our long day of travel, we were told “piano, piano!” and that Swedes tend to like quiet in public spaces.

Though we started learning quickly, there is so much about Swedish culture that’s impossible to understand unless you grew up here. On our second day, we took a guided city tour with an American expat who’s been here for three years. Though he was able to provide much insight into the social conservatism in Sweden (for example, no one wants to be the best here.

Instead, they aim for “lagom,” which is “the perfect amount” above average but below the best. This desire to be better but not best apparently provides the foundation for a lot of social manipulation and distrust since people generally don’t say exactly what they mean for fear of being seen as bragging, selfish, etc.  He maintained that he was learning new things about the social order here everyday.

On this day we also had our first structured academic experience at the Stockholm School of Economics (SSE). We discussed general differences in the Swedish Justice system and specific qualities of the Swedish welfare state with Professor Jonas Brodin and learned that many, if not all, of the differences in how Swedes and Americans view crime and justice can be traced back to the structured welfare state (or lack thereof).

We experienced these differences firsthand as we toured Österåker Prison, an all-male medium-to-high security level prison that specializes in addiction rehabilitation. After visiting  New York’s Auburn Prison last spring, we found the differences between the American and Swedish system glaring.

Most obvious, perhaps, were the ways in which the corrections officers spoke about themselves and the inmates. In fact, they struggled to come up with their own job title and always referred to the inmates as “clients.” In contrast, the corrections officers at Auburn were quick to identify themselves as such and refer to the inmates as “inmates” or by overgeneralizing and referring to them as an indistinguishable group: “the types of men we have in here.”

Most important,  in my view, was a genuine focus on rehabilitation rather than retribution. The officers who led our tour clearly cared for their clients, and had the chance to get to know them since they were assigned only 36 clients each. As evidence of this, when we visited a less-secure portion of the prison reserved for the more trusted men, one man, evidently a former client of our guide, hugged her when he saw her and excitedly offered to show us his spacious room.

We were also allowed to talk for around 10 minutes with two other clients in the prison, who both seemed really excited to talk with us (and we could have stayed longer had we not been on a timed schedule). In contrast, the officers in Auburn kept us extremely isolated from the inmates “for our own safety.”

Though we’ve already experienced some of the most obvious differences between the Swedish and American justice and social systems, there is still much more to see and learn. In the coming days, we look forward to visiting an all-women’s prison, lectures from other distinguished faculty members at SSE, and meetings with members of the Justice Department, police officers, prosecutors and staff at various administrative and enforcement levels.

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