The United States, as per a recent report, has more than 3,000 prisoners serving life terms for non-violent crimes. Meanwhile, Sweden, its contemporary in the developed world, has decided to close four of its prisons as it sees no need for them. What explains these contrasting developments?

Two contrasting developments in two developed countries. About their incarceration norms. Make us question the need to confine a convict to prison. Make us ask if imprisonment fuels recidivism rather than providing scope for reformation?\

The first development is from the land of the free, the home of the brave, United States. The second one from a country that gave us a quirky ‘condition’ in which one where a victim starts expressing empathy toward the captor — Stockholm syndrome — Sweden.

A study done by the American Civil Liberties Union, A living death: Life without parole for nonviolent offenses, sheds some light on the U.S. criminal justice system. It provides figures that would alarm even the most vocal proponent of retributive justice. It says that at least 3,278 prisoners in the U.S. are serving life sentences without parole for nonviolent offenses. These are individuals who would perhaps spend the rest of their lives behind bars. The punishment is no doubt vastly disproportionate to the offences they committed, 'crimes' like theft and drug trafficking.

Of them, 79 per cent were convicted of drug-related crimes like possession and trafficking while about 20 per cent were convicted of crimes like theft.

When it comes to the U.S., justice refuses to be colour blind. These incarceration figures are no exception. They have a disproportionately high representation of the blacks and the Latinos. Sixty five per cent of the prisoners are blacks while 16 per cent are Latinos. A further 18 per cent are white.

We might be tempted to think: “Drug-related violence? Convict deserves the harshest of punishments. The only way to teach them a lesson and cleanse our society of unwanted elements”.

The reality: despite these high figures, converting prisons into prison towns, the U.S. remains world’s leading importer of illegal drugs. The numbers are only going up as its War on drugs limits supply and fuels further demand. The ones made to pay the price are the minions rather than the masters.

The equality trust - an organisation dedicated to studying inequality - says through its study report that when we observe growth in U.S. prison population, we can attribute only 12 per cent of the rise to increase in crimes. It sees a direct correlation between income inequality and the number of persons behind bars.

No country for prisons

Meanwhile, the development in Sweden comes as a whiff of fresh air at a time when demand for incarceration and sentencing is high in India. The Nordic country has closed down four prisons and a remand centre because it sees no need for them.

Nils Oberg, the head of the country’s prison and probation services had this to say: “We have seen an out-of-the-ordinary decline in the number of inmates…we have the opportunity to close down a part of our infrastructure that we don’t need at this point of time.”

Oberg’s assertions also indicate that the number of prisoners behind bars for drug offences has been on the wane.

When pressed for a reason for this, he hopes that Sweden’s criminal justice system’s rehabilitation policies played a part. He also stresses the need to make the rehabilitation mechanism stronger.

A criminology professor quoted by The Guardian attributes the reduction to shift toward probationary sanctions for drug offences. Offering restorative options instead of incarceration — with option to extend it to imprisonment in case it doesn’t work — does have a positive impact on offenders.

To cite official data for the number of prisoners in Sweden, compared to a high of 5,722 persons in 2004, there were 4,852 in 2012, a fall by a sixth.

Some more numbers: The criminologist said, of the fall in prison population between 2004 and 2012, 36 per cent related to theft and 25 per cent to drug offences.

The equality trust’s assertion sheds some more light on the relationship between crime rates and incarceration. It says that incarceration rates in a society are a reflection of four factors: Crime rates; conviction rates; preference shown to punitive rather than rehabilitative measures; and lengths of prison sentences.

On all the four counts, U.S. leans towards retribution while Sweden opts for rehabilitation.

It goes on to quote a study from Social science and medicine journal documenting the impact of income inequality on the incarceration rate both in the U.S. and in other countries. It says there is a strong correlation between income inequality and the number of people imprisoned in any country.

Swedish model of social democracy did come under the scanner earlier this year when riots drew attention to the increasing inequalities, especially those between Swedes and immigrants. Nick Oberg, head of Sweden’s prison and probation services, keeps the option of re-opening the prisons open.

However, given the approach adopted by Swedish welfare model and the checks and balances in place — resilient enough to withstand the rapid and lopsided growth that has taken place there in the last two decades — it is likely that prisoner population would keep getting reduced and the proficient citizen population see a growth.

Maybe giving an opportunity for rehabilitation is a better option than condemning the accused to a life of guilt without parole?