Open house day at Swedish prison. File photo: Claes Sandén/Kristianstad kommun/Flickr
Swedish judge Carin Westerlund says she seldom hesitates to take the opportunity of keeping a convict out of prison.
"I can choose to hand down a probation or community service sentence rather than condemn someone to prison," Westerlund, a judge in Uppsala district, told AFP. She added that in the cases where alternative sentences were not available, she had seen no change in the severity of sentencing.
"Burglaries, narcotics or sexual violence, I'd say the sentences haven't changed in the last ten years," Westerlund said.
As Swedish judges opt for electronic tagging and other sentences that keep inmate numbers down, Sweden is closing prisons. Anyone sentenced to less than six months in jail has the right, since 2005, to request an electronic bracelet rather than incarceration. Many judges have embraced the policy.
Along with its Nordic neighbours, Sweden has one of the world's lowest incarceration rates, at 0.5 per 1,000. It is half the level of France and ten times less than the United States. The country's prison population fell by nearly 1,000 inmates over the last decade to about 4,300, reveal figures from the Swedish Prison and Probation Service (Kriminalvården).
Greater use of electronic bracelets and probation may not explain alone the rapid fall in the number of prisoners, correctional officers said.
"It's still too early to give definitive answers," said Nils Öberg, head of the Prison and Probation Service.
A recent study from Stockholm University's criminology department indicated that non-custodial sentences have played a major role in slashing prisoner numbers. In 2011, the Supreme Court (Högsta domstolen) issued new criteria for drug trafficking convictions, which resulted in less severe sentencing for more minor crimes.
Swedish courts are also more likely to grant parole after two-thirds of a sentence has been served. Another factor may be large state investments in rehabilitation and recidivism prevention programmes.
A 38-year-old inmate at Norrtälje prison, who declined to give his name, said that prisoners in Sweden have access to education and "a chance to start over."
"It's the first time I serve a sentence and I hope it'll be the last."
Statistics from the National Crime Prevention Council (Brottsförebyggande rådet - Brå) revealed that reported crimes are on the rise, from 1.2 million in 2004 to 1.4 million in 2012. The increase included a significant rise in reported drug crimes, fraud and assault.
The statisticians noted in their half-year review published at the end of 2013, howevver, that reported crime rates should not be interpreted as reflecting the number of actual crimes committed. The public's willingness to report crime and the intensity of certain police work, for example, could influence the numbers, Brå argued.
"The number of reported crimes in certain criminal areas, such as narcotics and traffic offences, is in large part due to the police's and other authorities' efforts to investigate (them)."
Sweden's current conservative government has attempted to bring in tougher sentencing for serious crimes, in particular murder, but their proposals have run up against opposition from a judiciary that believes more in rehabilitation than punishment. That more lenient approach is supported by many Swedes but it has its critics, not least from the National Victim Support Association (Brottsofferjouren - Boj).
"Life sentences for murder cases are not that frequent anymore," said Sven-Erik Alhem who heads the association. "In my opinion, it's obvious that any murder case should be punished by life sentences... It's very important to say that the families of those who have been killed suffer a lot. They don't think it's right to have a short period of time in prison."
In 2013, Sweden closed four prisons and one rehabilitation centre, out of a total of 82 penal institutions. Correctional services head Öberg said the facilities were "quite old" and that a big investment would have been needed to keep them operational. The remaining institutions are generally under-occupied.
"If short sentences are served in probation, that empties the prisons," said Anders Ekström, inspector of Norrtälje prison, which has 160 inmates and a capacity for 200.
Öberg does not think fewer criminals in the country's prisons will lead to more violence or put him out of work.
"It's a good opportunity to work on preventing re-offending and finding a more effective way to strengthen public order and security in the long-run."