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Editorial: Look to Norway for true prison reforms

The Detroit News

There are better ways to punish those who break society's laws. There are better ways to correct those who stray from law-abiding lives. And there are certainly much better ways to deal with those whose mental illness exhibits itself in criminal behavior.

Just look to Norway. That's what The Detroit News did in dispatching reporter Karen Bouffard to the Scandinavian country known as the most advanced in dealing with its criminal and mentally ill populations.

What Bouffard observed there, as detailed in her special report, was not only a more humane system, but also one that could potentially be more efficient for taxpayers.

More:Could Norway’s mental health focus reduce incarceration in Michigan?

More:Michigan prison takes a gentler tack with mentally ill

Michigan has made considerable progress in reshaping its Corrections Department to place a stronger emphasis on rehabilitation and reducing recidivism. But too many inmates still serve long stretches simply doing time. 

And while that takes dangerous and inconvenient individuals off the streets for a period, most will ultimately be released back into society carrying with them the same behavioral and mental disorders that landed them in jail in the first place. Twenty-eight percent of those released will return to prison within three years.

Andre, who asked that his last name be withheld, stands in his room at Halden Prison in Norway, where there are no bars, barbed wire or armed guards. He's there for the kidnap and torture of a man in Norway's drug underworld, and lives in a substance use treatment unit at Halden.

Norway employs a markedly different approach that puts the emphasis on actually correcting behavior.

Recognizing that a large percentage of those who get locked up have mental illness, the Norwegians front-load the prison experience with analysis and therapy. It's a more costly approach, but if it leads to shorter prison stays, lower recidivism rates and fewer wasted lives, and it could be a huge money saver in the long run.

For convicts who are not mentally ill, the prison system in Norway provides skill training to prepare them for the workplace and socialization skills aimed at diverting them from crime.

Adapting a version of the Norwegian system would require a major shift in how we view criminal justice.

If all we want the system to do is punish, then the current version works. But if redeeming lives is the goal, as it should be, then we must adopt a radically different attitude toward criminals.

First, we must recognize that not all criminal behavior is motivated by greed or evil intent. Nearly one-quarter of Michigan's 38,000 inmates are mentally ill, according to the Corrections Department. Simply locking them up will not cure their illness, nor deter them from future crimes.

That should start with a better overall mental health system in Michigan, which is currently a laggard in identifying and treating those with mental disorders. 

Daily life at Norway's Halden Prison includes frequent walks between housing units, classroom buildings and other areas along tree-lined paths such as this.

If the mentally ill do end up committing a crime, they should be sent to facilities designed to treat them, rather than to prison. Michigan has one mental health prison facility that mimics the Norway approach, but it can only house 200 patient/prisoners at a time.

For the rest of the convict population, their period of incarceration should from Day One be focused on preparing them to reenter society. Rather than handing down sentences for specific periods of time — five to 10, 10 to 20 — the goal should be to lock up until they are fully rehabilitated, and then release them. Time spent behind bars should be determined by the inmate's progress, rather than the calendar. 

 Keeping someone locked up long after they are no longer a threat to their fellow citizens is cruel, and expensive.

Finally, prison sentences should be reserved for those we truly fear. For all others, alternative forms of punishment, including work programs, financial penalties and community service should be employed. 

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack are currently heading a commission to produce ideas for reforming Michigan's corrections system. They should take a close look at what Norway has already done.