Where prison is seen as last resort of justice system
Interview: Esa Vesterbacka, the director general of the Finnish Criminal Sanctions Agency, has noticed a recent interest from the Irish in the Finnish prison system.
“There have been quite many delegations from Ireland lately in Finland,” he says. As the shortcomings in the Irish prison system become increasingly stark, politicians and prison administrators are looking to northern Europe, where prison systems are considered to be among the world’s best, for solutions.
“I would say it’s not the Finnish prison system that is so special,” Vesterbacka says. “It’s the Finnish criminal policy as a whole and the Finish prison system is only a part of that.
“What makes Finland so special is how the number of prisoners has developed during the last decades. For example, I think in 1960 our prison rate for 100,000 inhabitants was 170 and now it’s about 60. In most countries it’s gone up and in Finland we have managed to get it down. I think prison has something to do with that but mainly it’s the criminal policy.”
According to the Council of Europe, states should use imprisonment only as a last resort, a principle Vesterbacka says Finland now takes “quite seriously”.
“In 1960, 35 per cent of all sentences were conditional [suspended] sentences and in 2010, almost 75 per cent were conditional sentences, often combined with a fine or community work.
“If the sentence is less than eight months, the court has the possibility to commute it to community work instead,” an option which he says is used in a large majority of short sentences.
While many countries order offenders to do community work, Vesterbacka says Finland has managed to make it a “real alternative” to prison sentences. The more moderate approach to criminal sanctions is broadly endorsed, he says.
“Of course we have a lot of discussions and opinions and so on but [recent legislation] was approved in our parliament unanimously, so there isn’t that much political criticism.
“There are those voices who say that punishment must be harsher – that discussion is going on of course, as it is everywhere else, but I think most of the Finnish citizens are moderate on this.”
He says Scandinavian countries are quite alike in this regard and that in the last two decades, their aim has been to reduce the reoffending rate.
In prisons this means a system of gradual release which involves transferring prisoners in closed prisons to open facilities, participation in courses of work or study during periods of temporary release and, eventually, post-release electronic monitoring and visits from support workers.
“We see that the most harmful thing is to release a prisoner from closed prisons to the street so we try to do that gradually.”