Last year 8,943 people were sentenced to a stint in jail, the lowest figure in more than six decades.
The number of prisoner admissions in Sweden has been steadily falling in recent years after a high in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1989, more than 15,000 people were sent to jail.
According to Sweden’s Prison and Probation Service, the number of criminals put under probationary sanctions has also dropped to 6,405, the lowest figure since 2001.
“A reduction in the number of people sent to criminal institutions has occurred across most main crime categories, especially with regard to alcohol-related and violent crimes,” said Johanna Hallin, Director of Kriminalvården’s statistics section in a statement.
But Kriminalvården noted that the number of people imprisoned for drug-related offences went up in 2014, following an increase of new admissions for these type of crimes between 2010 and 2013.
Sweden has a zero tolerance approach to drugs, with tougher penalties for possession than most other EU nations. However sentence periods for drug-related crimes have halved over the past decade.
“A major explanation for the shorter punishment times is a law change from the Supreme Court, which requires that the circumstances of each individual case must be taken into account when sentencing or sanctioning people for narcotics-related crimes,” said Hallin.
Sweden’s drop in prisoner numbers mirrors a similar trend in Germany and the Netherlands, while the EU’s overall prison population is rising.
A recent EU report revealed that there were less than 100 prisoners per 100,000 population in Sweden and the other Nordic nations in 2010. By contrast, France had between 150 and 200 while the UK and Spain hosted between 200 and 250.
Reoffending rates are also low in Sweden — around 40 percent — less than half the figure in the UK and many other EU nations.
The country has long had a global reputation for focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
In a lecture for UK prison reform group The Longford Trust in London last year, Nils Öberg, director of Kriminalvården said: “The use of imprisonment must always be the very last resort, not your first preferred option.”
He added: “In Sweden, we made that choice a long time ago. We have been giving priority to probation and alternative penal sanctions over imprisonment for many decades now. We have had time to develop our skills and methods for carrying out community service, supervision, electronic monitoring, probation or mandatory treatment. We have made good progress in all of these areas and I believe that we now have a system that is credible and works well for us.”