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Is Norway a Model for Better Prison Practices?

Halden Prison in Norway is considered the gold standard for the healthy rehabilitation of inmates. Norway has gained an international reputation for effectively rehabilitating prisoners, while U.S. officials face large jail populations and costs — fueled significantly by the mentally ill, the Detroit News reports. Small elements of Michigan’s justice system reflect Norway’s rehabilitative approach, from drug treatment courts to art and music therapy at a facility that treats the  most severely mentally ill inmates. States like 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.

The Detroit News visited Halden Prison, as well as mental health programs and psychiatric hospitals in Norway, to study the intersection of criminal justice and mental health there. 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. Norway may provide an example of how U.S. states could better balance government spending between criminal justice and mental health. Norway spent $129,222 per prisoner in 2018 compared with $38,051 per prisoner in Michigan. Critics contend the U.S. spends more because its inmates serve longer sentences and are more likely to return to prison. Skeptics doubt that Norwegian methods could work in the U.S.. “In Norway, the vast majority of the prisoners are going to all be Norwegian; they’re very much the same,” said former Eaton County Sheriff Rick Jones, who served 14 years in the state legislature. Still, Norway’s methods are being embraced by a growing number of American prison and criminal justice professionals. “I think you have to see it to believe it,” said North Dakota Corrections Director Leann Bertsch, who has twice visited Halden and has adopted reforms based on the Norwegian model.