Criminal recidivism: examples from Norway


By Handré Brand

Criminal recidivism is a bottleneck of phenomenal magnitude in South Africa, as well as internationally. The term refers specifically to the repetition of criminal behaviour, especially after sentences have been served or a rehabilitation program has been completed.

The term is commonly used in the criminal justice system to describe the tendency of individuals to, again as before, participate in criminal activity. In connection with this, Koen (2024) says that since the death penalty was abolished, there is no sufficient deterrent for criminals.

Why is the recidivism rate in South Africa so high?

According to Venter (2023), the recidivism level (conservatively estimated) in South Africa is between 50%-70%. There are even researchers who state the rate as much higher (55%-95%) (Louw 2024).

Are not too many persons perhaps admitted to prisons and too many released too soon? The statement is even made that a “country has the number of criminals that the country in question deserves”. Interpretation of this statement is particularly significant when considering the socio-social circumstances from which many criminals come, as well as their intense exposure to poverty and unemployment as causal factors of crime and recidivism (Louw 2024).

If the circumstances of not changing would be better than the circumstances after having changed, for what reasons would a prisoner be motivated to change his/her behaviour? (Loxton 2024). What constitutes the content quality of the rehabilitation programs to which prisoners are exposed?

Further moderator variables for which there are still no clear answers are the following: How does the degree of seriousness of the offense affect the rehabilitation process, the outcomes and the recidivism rate? Does a previous relationship between offender and victim influence the outcome of restorative justice programs? Are younger offenders more susceptible to successful rehabilitation than older offenders? Is the quality of training of mediators related to the successful outcomes of the rehabilitation process?

Importance of recidivism

Where recidivism comes into play there must be a clearly identifiable starting point such as discharge on parole or completion of a rehabilitation program. After this event, there must be some form of “failure” (for example re-arrest due to a further violent crime). Thirdly, a follow-up period follows and this new period is considered a recidivism window period.

Recidivism is seen as a core concept in criminality because it reflects the extent to which offenders continue or cease criminal behavior after being punished or rehabilitated. Recidivism rates also have implications for the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system, as well as the social and economic costs of crime. Recidivism can be influenced by various factors, such as individual personality traits, social and environmental factors, as well as the type and quality of rehabilitation programs. That is why deliberate efforts to promote reduction of recidivism rates are an important goal of criminology and criminal justice policy.


Norway’s prison system underwent a radical transformation during the 1990s. The approach has shifted from a punitive approach to a focus on rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders. Norway’s prison model, which emphasizes smaller, community-based correctional facilities, has become a globally emulated model. Outstanding features include the placement of prisoners in correctional facilities relatively close to the communities from which they originate; frequent visits by friends and family; elimination of stigmatization and a focus on skills development.

Prominent examples of Norwegian facilities include Halden Prison, known for its humane conditions and amenities such as a fitness center and recording studio. The Bastøy prison, which is located on an island and is known for encouraging visits by spouses, children and relatives of prisoners. The Ullersmo prison is the largest correctional facility. Provision is made here for aggressive and violent criminals, but still accompanied by professional rehabilitation programs as a basic priority.

Radical reforms to the system included the elimination of life sentences and replaced them with a maximum sentence of 21 years (recently extended to 30 years for specific crimes). Norway’s focus on rehabilitation has led to a significant decrease in recidivism, with only 20% of offenders reoffending within two years of release and with a 25% recidivism rate after five years. The rehabilitation approach also has a positive impact on the economy, by increasing employment rates among former prisoners.

The philosophy is rooted in treating prisoners as individuals with full human dignity in order to facilitate their re-entry into society and develop their skills, self-confidence and self-respect.

Norwegian prisons maintain certain basic human rights, such as being able to vote in elections, to receive further education and to participate in extracurricular activities. The philosophy is rooted in treating prisoners as individuals with full human dignity in order to facilitate their re-entry into society and develop their skills, self-confidence and self-respect.

Electronic monitoring (EM) in Norway is based on the models and previous experience of Denmark and Sweden. In electronic monitoring, radio frequency or other technology is used to provide information about exactly what an offender’s movements are (Andersen and Telle 2022).

EM is significantly cheaper than both regular prisons and standard community supervision, and serving a sentence using EM can enable the offender to maintain work commitments, pay taxes and engage in the community.

A specific aim of the EM program in Norway was initially to address shortages in prison capacity, which led to a rare phenomenon of prison waiting lists in Norway. The Norwegian EM program uses radio frequency technology to ensure that offenders adhere to a personal weekly schedule that includes between 15 and 40 hours of work-related, out-of-home activities (for example, teaching, employment-oriented programs, volunteer work and regular paid work), as well as regular supervision appointments with the Norwegian Correctional Service.

Other countries, including some US states, have made efforts to implement elements of the Norwegian system. However, the success of such systems depends, among other things, on widespread social support and specific economic considerations. Norway spends significantly more per capita on offenders compared to the United States, raising questions about the feasibility of such an approach in countries with different values ​​and financial constraints.

Norway’s prison system, with a primary focus on rehabilitation, restorative justice and respect for prisoners’ human dignity, has proven that the recidivism rate can be lowered and that rehabilitation can contribute to the establishment of a safer society. However, duplicating this model in other countries faces challenges related to critical social attitudes and economic implications.

In closing

It is critical to effectively evaluate the long-term effectiveness of rehabilitation programs for and interventions with criminal offenders. Determining which types of programs are most effective in reducing criminal recidivism rates is an ongoing challenge in order to improve the well-being of offenders and society in general.

The effectiveness and accuracy of existing risk assessment tools for predicting criminal recidivism is a subject of ongoing debate. There is a need to psychometrically refine and improve these tools in order to increase their predictive validity.

The challenges that offenders experience in terms of community reintegration after release and the identification of effective strategies to support successful reintegration should constantly remain the focus of experts in this field.

Finally, it is important to keep abreast of the latest research findings and developments in the field of criminality, restorative justice and recidivism, as new research findings may yield further insights in order to meaningfully conceptualize these and other urgent applicable questions.


Andersen, SN and K Telle. 2022. Better out than in? The effect on recidivism of replacing incarceration with electronic monitoring in Norway. European Journal of Criminology19 (1):55-76.

Koen, T. 2024. Worst criminals get parole. The Citizen Forum. January 19, 2024.

Lou, DAP. 2024. Clinical psychologist and criminologist. Personal communication. Stellenbosch, 16 January 2024.

Loxton, L. 2024. Auditor. Personal communication. Stellenbosch, 16 January 2024.

Venter, N. 2023. What does a life sentence entail? An outline of the parole process in South Africa, as well as possible remedies for crime victims who are excluded from this process. LitNet Academics, 20 (3). LitNet_Academic_j20n3e1_Venter.pdf

  • Handré Brand is a retired counseling psychologist from Stellenbosch.

The full version of this article originally appeared in LitNet and can here be read.