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Norway, California: Contrast in criminal treatment

Publication Date: 
August 13, 2011
San Francisco Chronicle
Bob Egelko

Professor Robert Weisberg spoke with Bob Egelko of the San Francisco Chronicle on the contrast between the Norwegian and American criminal justice system, and why he believes Norway's is "less condemnatory."

Confessed Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik faces a 21-year prison sentence if convicted of terrorism charges. That's less than the 25-to-life term California's three-strikes law imposes for shoplifting by someone with a record of two serious or violent felony convictions.

If charged with crimes against humanity under a recent Norwegian law, Breivik could get 30 years, which amounts to less than five months for each of the 77 lives he admitted taking. By contrast, about three-quarters of U.S. states, including California, have the death penalty for murder, and the others impose sentences of up to life in prison.


"Norway probably epitomizes the difference between Northern Europe and the United States," said Robert Weisberg, a Stanford law professor, former death penalty defense lawyer and co-director of the school's Criminal Justice Center. "It is less condemnatory and more oriented toward a policy of rehabilitation of a kind that was dominant in the U.S. 40 or 50 years ago."

Part of the reason, he said, is that most of Norway's population is relatively comfortable financially and well educated, with little racial or ethnic diversity.


"Criminal justice became political in the 1970s in a way it hadn't been before," said Stanford's Weisberg. In contrast to Europe, where high-ranking officials can normally make sentencing policies with little fear of public backlash, he said, "in the U.S. they'll hang everybody that the public wants to be hanged."