A Different Justice: Why Anders Breivik Only Got 21 Years for Killing 77 People

Norway's gentler criminal system uses something called "restorative justice," which appears to be potentially better at reducing crime than our own, but at a real cost.

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Anders Breivik waits in his Oslo courtroom. (AP)

As an American, or maybe just as a moral human being, it's hard not to feel appalled, even outraged, that Norwegian far-right monster Anders Breivik only received 21 years in prison for his attacks last year, including a bombing in Oslo and a cold-blooded shooting spree, which claimed 77 lives. That's just under 100 days per murder. The decision, reached by the court's five-member panel, was unanimous. He will serve out his years (which can be extended) in a three-room cell with a TV, exercise room, and "Ikea-style furniture." The New York Times quoted a handful of survivors and victims' relatives expressing relief and satisfaction at the verdict. It's not a scientific survey, but it's still jarring to see Norwegians welcoming this light sentence.

Norway's criminal justice system is, obviously, quite distinct from that of, say, the U.S.; 21 years is the maximum sentence for anything less severe than war crimes or genocide. Still, it's more than that: the entire philosophy underpinning their system is radically different. I don't have an answer for which is better. I doubt anyone does. But Americans' shocked response to the Breivik sentence hints at not just how different the two systems are, but how deeply we may have come to internalize our understanding of justice, which, whatever its merits, doesn't seem to be as universally applied as we might think.

The American justice system, like most of those in at least the Western world, is built on an idea called retributive justice. In very simplified terms (sorry, I'm not a legal scholar), it defines justice as appropriately punishing someone for an act that's harmful to society. Our system does include other ideas: incapacitating a criminal from committing other crimes, rehabilitating criminals to rejoin society, and deterring other potential criminals. At its foundation, though, retributive justice is about enforcing both rule of law and more abstract ideas of fairness and morality. Crimes are measured by their damage to society, and it's society that, working through the court system, metes out in-turn punishment. Justice is treated as valuable and important in itself, not just for its deterrence or incapacitative effects. In a retributive system, the punishment fits the crime, and 21 years in a three-room cell doesn't come close to fitting Breivik's 77 premeditated murders.

Norway doesn't work that way. Although Breivik will likely be in prison permanently -- his sentence can be extended -- 21 years really is the norm even for very violent crimes. The much-studied Norwegian system is built on something called restorative justice. Proponents of this system might argue that it emphasizes healing: for the victims, for the society, and, yes, for the criminal him or herself. Sounds straightforward enough, but you might notice that there's nothing in there about necessarily punishing the criminal, and in fact even takes his or her needs into account.

"Restorative justice thus begins with a concern for victims and how to meet their needs, for repairing the harm as much as possible, both concretely and symbolically," explains a 1997 academic article, by a scholar of restorative justice named Howard Zehr, extolling the systems' virtues. In the Breivik trial, this meant giving every victim (survivors as well as the families of those killed) a direct voice. Victims were individually represented by 174 court-appointed lawyers. The court heard 77 autopsy reports, 77 descriptions of how Breivik had killed them, and 77 minute-long biographies "voicing his or her unfulfilled ambitions and dreams." In an American-style retributive system, the trial is primarily about hearing and evaluating the case against the criminal. Norway does this too, but it also includes this restorative tool of giving space to victims, not as evidence, but to make the trial a forum for those victims to heal and to confront the man who'd harmed them. The trial itself is about more than just proving or disproving guilt, but about exorcising the victims' suffering.

What about the criminal? Of course, Norway is locking Breivik away in part to keep him safely cordoned off from society. Beyond that, the restorative "model encourages offenders to understand the consequences of their actions or to empathize with victims," Zehr explains. That begins with the trial, where he or she is encouraged to grapple with the wrongness of their actions; Breivik gave no sign of doing this, a remorseless, fist-pumping neo-Nazi to the very end. The process continues during the incarceration, which is treated less as a form of punishment than as a sort of state-imposed rehabilitation. It's not a categorial difference from the American model, which includes a number of rehab and therapeutic offerings, but, with Breivik about to enjoy some not insignificant creature comforts in his three-room cell, the emphasis is clearly distinct.

The pleasant-sounding experience of being in Norwegian prison isn't some sign of Scandinavian weakness or naïveté; it's precisely the point. A comfortable cell, clean and relaxing environment, and nice daily activities such as cooking classes are all meant to prepare the criminal for potentially difficult or painful internal reformation. Incarceration, in this thinking, is the treatment for whatever social or psychological disease led them to transgress. The criminals are not primarily wrongdoers to be punished, but broken people to be fixed.

In an ideal restorative trial, the criminal will not just be passively punished for his or her crime, but actively take "responsibility for making things right with victims and the community as far as possible," as Zehr puts it. This "restitution" can include "money and services, to victims and the community." But that's just an ideal, and Zehr acknowledges that "society rarely achieves justice that is fully restorative." It's hard to imagine Breivik ever getting to this point (experts expect his sentence to be extended indefinitely), though others do, and he will be joining a prison system designed for those to-be-reformed.

Here's the tough thing about restorative justice: it works, as long as you don't consider retribution to be its own inherent good. Despite the lighter sentences, restorative justice systems seem to reduce crime, reduce the cost of imprisoning criminals, and reduce recidivism. There's no comparative data on which system better satisfies victims, but survivors and family members at the Breivik trial, at least, spent days of court time listening to, crying over, and applauding one another's stories. And this approach isn't just for well-off Scandinavian societies; Saudi Arabia has claimed considerable success applying the restorative models to terrorists and violent extremists.

But, even if we accept all of the data suggesting that society as a whole is better off under a Norwegian-style restorative model, those numbers don't account for the more abstract, difficult-to-define sense of justice as its own inherent good. Whatever you feel when you read about a criminal going free, see a wrongdoer get away with it, or hear that a mass murderer got sentenced to only 21 years, those emotions might be rooted in a basic human need for justice and fairness. A 2003 Princeton psychological study, for example, isolated a feeling of "moral outrage felt by those who witness transgressions." A German study from last year found that people who believe they've witnessed injustice become less happy, as if living in a just society were an intrinsic emotional need.

Norwegian-style restorative justice subverts those human desires for justice and fairness, which does seem to have found success in reducing crime's cost to society. Proponents, such as University of Oslo professor Thomas Mathiesen, say it's better for society overall because it isn't about "revenge, but sober, dignified treatment." But is the retributive-style need for justice and fairness really only about "revenge," or is it something more important than that? The retributive approach absolutely has its pitfalls -- the American system's heavy emphasis on punishment has a history of leading it to horrific excess and abuse -- but at least it's meant to be just. I don't know how you balance that against the overall social good, which Norway's gentler system seems to have found success in promoting, but the vastly different philosophies undergirding the two systems are a reminder that, even if right and wrong are universal, how society treats them is not.