Should California Really Be Following Norway’s Lead on Criminal Justice Reform? (Part Two)


In comparing Norway’s criminal justice system with California’s, it is important to look at how the two document crime and post-incarceration measurements.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) measures post incarceration conduct three ways: rearrests, reconvictions, and returns to prison.  The most recent study, published in April 2023, studies a cohort of inmates released in 2017/18 for a period of three years. A three-year period is generally accepted as adequate by criminal justice experts as indicative of a former inmate’s success post-release.

The rearrest, reconvictions, and returns to prison percentages of the cohort are 68.4 percent rearrested, 44.6 percent reconvicted, and 19.8 percent reincarcerated.  This might cause one to wonder why such a small percentage of persons rearrested resulted in reincarceration.

According to the study 23.8 percent of parolees are rearrested typically for drug or property crimes and have their cases resolved as a parole violation which will not be reflected as a criminal conviction.  The remaining 44.6 who are reconvicted may have their parole extended, be given credit for time served, or serve their sentence in a county jail as a so called “triple non” (non-violent, non-sexual, and non-serious offence), which presumably means that the 19.8 percent who are reincarcerated and are returned to state prison are for serious and violent offenses.

Better Out Than In?

“Better Out Than In” is the unofficial motto of the Norwegian Correctional Service – but is it working?

Unlike California, the Norwegian Correctional Service does not track rearrests and reconvictions – only reincarcerations. For the years 2017/2018, the two-year reincarceration rates were 16.4 percent and 13 percent, respectively.  They are lower than California’s 19.8 percent three-year reincarceration rate. However, if Norway trends as California statistics do, the third year is what matters most.

The two-year rates show that California and Norway are not nearly as different as claimed by state officials and the media who conflate the U.S. recidivism rate with California’s.

According to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, despite a drop in the inmate population from roughly 170,000 in 2011 to 91,933 in September 2023, per inmate spending in California has risen to $106,131 while the crime rate is increasing.

Norway spends $156,277 per inmate. One difference is Norway includes pretrial inmates in its prison population statistics, while California houses them in county jails, making a full comparison more complex.  However, Gov. Newsom is talking about San Quentin, not county jails, in his proposal.

On crime, is Norway safer than California?

In 2022, Norway reported 32,439 violent crimes while Californian’s reported 193,019.  Based on their relative populations, Norway experienced 549.81 violent crimes per 100,000 population and 494.6 per 100,000 in California.  Simply put. Norway is a more violent place than California on a per capita basis.

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Number of Crimes/Population x 100,000

The same is true of the total number of crimes.  Norway reported 279,512 crimes in 2021, while Californians reported 1,041,145.  This is a huge difference in raw numbers, but Norway has significantly more crime when adjusted for population.

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Number of Crimes/Population x 100,000

Steve Smith is the author of the brief on California’s growing crime problem, “Paradise Lost,” and is a senior fellow in urban studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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