Hug a Hoodie or Mug a Hoodie? – What would Borgen do?

It’s really rather a good feeling being a Danish Brit nowadays. Repeated requests for jumper-knitting instructions are admittedly a drawback, but one I can live with. More interesting are daily questions about policy matters as practised Borgen style. (For those who’ve been living under a stone for the past several months, “Borgen” is short for Christiansborg, the Danish Parliament building as well as the title of the appointment-to-view Danish version of the West Wing).

“How is it that the Skandis apparently get it so right?” Or “How can you be the happiest people on earth while, at the same time, paying the most tax?” The trickle of enquiries has now become a steady stream so, as I often frankly have no idea what the answer might be, I’ve decided to start an irregular blog, which looks at UK policy in the news and asks: “What Would Borgen Do?”

And what better place to launch this initiative than with Call-me-Dave’s new “tough but intelligent” Rehabilitation Revolution initiative?

Let’s examine the evidence:

According to The Tenth United Nations Survey of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems (bit of a mouthful there), Denmark enjoys far lower levels of criminality than those experienced in the UK. While employing 196 police per 100,000 population, the Danish prison population, for example, is just 59 per 100,000 citizens. The UK, by comparison, boasts a hefty 257 police per 100,000 population in order to incarcerate a whopping 129 criminals per 100,000 people. Granted, this may be a mere fifth of the US prison population (largest in the world)  but it’s twice what Borgen manages to achieve. Even more impressively, the reoffending rate for released prisoners in Denmark is 29% compared with 47% in the UK .

So what’s going on?

Cameron says:

Personal responsibility is at the heart of the criminal justice system, meaning long prison sentences are the only “thinkable” punishment for certain serious offenders.

“This is what victims and society deserve… And the society bit matters. Retribution is not a dirty word; it is important to society that revulsion against crime is properly recognised, and acted on by the state on our behalf,” he argues.

“The model of payments by results for [private] firms has to be accelerated.”The benefit of a payment-by-results system is it forces the organisations working with you to look for what really does work because they don’t get paid unless they do.” Now where have we heard that before? Was it that A4E shambles? or the G4S debacle? Whatever. The ‘new’ idea is basically: ‘if it moves, privatise it’. And walk away.

Borgen says:

Prison is a last resort in Denmark. The Danish justice system is based on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Writing in The New Statesman (September 4, 2006) Nick Pearce reported that Denmark “does all it can to keep people out of jail, and once there, to prepare them for life back in the community. Its sentences are short, but its re-offending rates far lower. In Denmark, prison appears to work for the right reasons.” The average Danish prison sentence is just 6.2 months, with just two percent of Danish prisoners spending more than two years in jail.

So how does even the toughest jail in Denmark, keep the re-offending rate so low? A clue comes in the number of female prison officers who patrol the corridors. About half of the officers are women. The idea behind this is that women guards are often better than men in calming down angry prisoners, and the number of women helps the prisoners behave more normally. They don’t just meet criminals and male guards, they interact with women. That is a fundamental principle in Danish prison regimes – normalisation. The Danish prison regime is based on normalisation, a principle of openness and responsibility, because they think it’s the best way of avoiding reconviction. And, apparently, they’re right.

Go girls!


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