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Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

When penal populism meets Scandinavian exceptionalism

John Todd


Scandinavian countries, and perhaps in particular Norway, have often been highlighted as a redoubt against the rise of penal populism in other parts of Europe and the United States. Of course, the nature and trajectory of this exceptionalism has been debated, including here on this blog.  Even ‘celebrity prisons’ like Halden and Bastøy can be painful places to serve a prison sentence.  But, as the COMPEN research programme is investigating, the contours of the penal field in Norway are unusual.  

In a recently published article in Punishment and Society, I have sought to explore how representatives from the governing parties in Norway have framed issues of punishment, prisons policy and offending.  This is important because in 2013 a left-of-centre government was replaced by a minority coalition of the centre-right Conservative Party and the populist-right Progress Party, with the Progress Party taking charge of the Ministry of Justice and Public Security.  This government was returned to office following a general election last autumn (with the addition of the smaller Liberal Party to the coalition).

Before 2013 the Progress Party had never been in government, having until this time been shunned by the other main parties. So with this party gaining control of the Justice Ministry, has there been a discursive upsurge in penal populism? Or, conversely, does Norway retain a sufficiently resilient penal welfare consensus that leaves little room for such populism? 

Governing voices from both the Progress Party and the Conservative Party engaged in what I term bordered penal populism, whereby populist policies are directed against non-citizens.  In doing so, governing voices in Norway represent themselves as dynamic, prioritising victims, keen to increase prison capacity rapidly, focused on individual security and as actively deporting foreign criminals. Foreign criminals are framed as unwanted, in need of deportation, requiring swift justice, deserving of a lesser prison regime and as not requiring rehabilitation. 

This bordered penal populism clearly has implications for non-citizens who come into the orbit of the Norwegian penal state.  In addition, I interpret the relative silence regarding the mission of the criminal care system when it comes to Norwegian citizens as a passive erosion of penal exceptionalism, and that the bordered penal populism that permeates the discourse risks negative implications for the criminal care system as a whole and for the position of non-citizens within Norwegian society. 

Whilst what I have described here is some distance from prison ethnography, I hope that readers of this blog might nonetheless it interesting in terms how governing voices make calls for action on the basis of identity constructions - identity constructions that are linked to tangible policy proposals that define the scope of punishment and how it is implemented. 

If you would like to read the article is available here ( or feel free to contact John Todd for a copy (

John Todd is a Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oslo. His PhD project is entitled ‘Unpacking the Norwegian desistance model: Discourses, practices and experiences’. John has previously worked in a range of policy roles within the civil service in both Belfast and Norway.’

logo The Comparative Penology Group is led by Dr Ben Crewe and his research team who, since 2016, have been working on a five-year project titled: 'Penal policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis'.

The research is based in England & Wales, and Norway, and involves four inter-related studies of (a) penal policymaking and the penal field (b) the experience of entry into and release from custody (c) the daily experiences of female prisoners and imprisoned sex offenders, and (d) prisoners in the most secure parts of each jurisdiction's prison system.

This project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC).









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