A Review of Pratt and Eriksson’s “Contrasts in Punishment: An Explanation of Anglophone Excess and Nordic Exceptionalism”
The Nordic countries of Sweden, Finland, and Norway have taken a much less punitive stance toward crime than their Anglophone counterparts. Pratt and Eriksson’s book Contrasts in Punishment: An Explanation of Anglophone Excess and Nordic Exceptionalism argues that in Nordic countries, collective social cohesion is culturally, religiously, educationally, and politically ingrained. As a result, Nordic countries treat their offenders not as societal failures but citizens in need of informal control strengthening, which has virtually eliminated their need for mega-prisons. In contrast, Pratt and Eriksson argue, Anglophone countries - particularly Britain, Australia, and New Zealand – emphasize individualism. The subsequent lack of social cohesion resultant from individualism is apparent in harsh penal ideology, where the criminal justice system seeks to punish offenders for their behavior, not taking into account the long-term societal consequences of incarceration. Pratt and Eriksson’s book is unique in that it explores penal ideology from two diametrically opposite perspectives. It is a must read for those seeking fresh criminal justice policy ideas from around the world.
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One insightful distinction that Pratt and Eriksson made early on between Nordic and Anglophone penal regimes was how they view criminality. In Nordic countries, criminals are viewed as the product of adverse social conditions. In Anglophone countries, criminals are viewed as individually responsible for their actions (pg. 23). These opposing perspectives are important because in each society, they have shaped the response to crime differently. Since criminals in Nordic countries are viewed as the product of adverse social conditions, they are not degraded when admitted to prison and fully retain their citizen privileges. In contrast, Anglophone countries tend to ostracize criminals, stripping them of their civilian rights and punishing them harshly. Consequently, Pratt and Eriksson argue, Nordic countries maintain a holistic commitment to human rights that does not exist to the same degree in Anglophone countries.
After reading their book, it seemed that most of the literature Pratt and Eriksson consulted was governmentally published, or some other form of official data. Although I think official statistics are a valuable source of quantitative data, some of Pratt and Eriksson’s cultural inferences about the solidarity of the Nordic population based on such data might exclude important qualitative data such as the testimony of residents regarding their viewpoint on social cohesion, for example. Further, their narrative seemed to support an image of Nordic countries that advertised their strengths in criminal justice policy, but did not give sufficient attention to their weaknesses. In fact, the only Nordic criminal justice policy weakness I could find that Pratt and Eriksson shed light on was their overuse of solitary confinement (pg. 121).
Pratt and Eriksson’s book implied that Nordic countries are superior to Anglophone countries not only in their criminal justice approach, but also in their history. I found this to be unsettling because they did not adequately explore Anglophone history in comparison to Nordic history, which, as I will discuss later, is arguably well-suited for social change. Instead, they focused on the fact that “Anglophone societies…carry an excessive, overladen baggage of signs and symbols that are unrelated to the crime rate…[which] gives messages of reassurance to anxious and insecure communities” (pg. 27). Further, by using over 200 years of history as a backdrop in both Nordic and Anglophone countries, Pratt and Eriksson effectively dismissed the likelihood that Anglophone countries would be able to implement the Nordic system of justice due to their lengthy history of individualism. In my view, this left the reader with a dismal take-home message about Anglophone countries’ ability to change.
Although Pratt and Eriksson did not use the United States as a comparative example, one can assume that they would have included it in the Anglophone category. Their pessimism toward the possibility of Anglophone criminal justice reform deserves a rebuttal. Pratt and Eriksson implied that Anglophone countries are inherently individualist, and therefore will doubtfully ever have the same level of social cohesion as Nordic countries. I beg to differ. Using Pratt and Eriksson’s example of how both Nordic and Anglophone countries’ criminal justice policy reflects their historical values, I argue that the United States, as an Anglophone country, is well acquainted with social change. The civil rights, counter-culture, and LGBT movements, for example, have changed the social trajectory of our country. Further, although emphasis is admittedly on individual prosperity, by and large, Americans share the same collective democratic values. Therefore, I do not think that the possibility of Anglophone criminal justice change is as far-fetched as Pratt and Eriksson would have us believe, but there are underlying ideological changes that need to be addressed prior to implementing a Nordic style criminal justice system.
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Looking back on how the civil rights movement radically changed our social perspective on race, it is comprehensible that a new social perspective on crime and the treatment of criminals could also happen. Pratt and Eriksson boasted about Nordic criminal justice success and criticized Anglophone criminal justice failure without accounting for an important difference – race. They stated that Nordic countries are mostly homogenous and are not as multicultural as Anglophone countries. If the United States, as it has done in the past, can implement social change regarding crime and the treatment of criminals, it will have overcome not only the historical hurdle that Pratt and Eriksson describe as the Anglophone limitation, but also a multicultural aspect that the Nordic countries have not yet experienced. On the one hand, it is hardly surprising that a society would have the same social viewpoint when it is historically, culturally, religiously, and racially the same, as in Nordic countries. On the other hand, it is quite surprising that a society would have the same social viewpoint when it is historically, culturally, religiously, and racially different, as in Anglophone countries.
In summary, Pratt and Eriksson argued that there is greater social cohesion in Nordic countries than in Anglophone countries, which reduces the need for formal control agents such as prisons. They did an excellent job illustrating the difference in penal ideology between Nordic and Anglophone countries, including how prisoners are treated and what rights they have in each society. However, their study could have been strengthened by including testimonials from residents about their feelings on social cohesion, rather than relying primarily on official statistics. Furthermore, their comparison of both societies led them to study one more than the other. This became evident in their favoritism toward Nordic criminal justice policy, which caused them to exclude important comparative information such as race. Their obsession with Nordic criminal justice success subtly sent a message to the reader that Anglophone criminal justice policies are beyond repair, which I attempted to debunk by arguing that Anglophone societies are, in fact, well-suited for social change. Despite these limitations, Pratt and Eriksson illustrated the success of Nordic criminal justice policies, providing a valuable example for the future of our own criminal justice policies.
Pratt, J., & Eriksson, A. (2012).Contrasts in punishment: An explanation of Anglophone excess and Nordic exceptionalism (pp. 8-260). New York, NY: Routledge.