Proud to Have Lowest Rate of Prisoners

Hólmsheiði Prison.

Hólmsheiði Prison.

Vala Hafstað

In 2017, Iceland had the lowest number of prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants, or 39, among European countries, according to Eurostat .

At the top of the list is Lithuania with 232 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants, followed by the Czech Republic, Estonia and Poland, with 209, 207 and 196 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants, respectively. With the fewest prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants, following Iceland, were Finland, Sweden and Denmark, with 56, 57 and 59 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants, respectively.

In the EU in 2017, there were on average 116 prisoners per 100,000 people - the lowest rate since 2000. On average in the EU, 5 percent of prisoners were women.

Helgi Guðmundsson, criminologist, tells Morgunblaðið that Icelanders have reason to be proud of these statistics. He states that it is clear from crime trends in recent years that the adaptation of electronic monitoring of offenders and increased options for community service does not decrease the deterrent effect.

Number of prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants

Number of prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants Map/Eurostat

Historically, he relates, Iceland has had about 40 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants - a rate which hasn’t changed since electronic monitoring was adopted in 2012. The fact that offenders oftentimes need to wait to serve their sentence does not skew the data much, he states, because many offenders who are waitlisted do not get a sentence that requires imprisonment.

A large part of the waitlisted offenders receive an unsuspended sentence of less than 12 months, which qualifies them for community service, if they prefer.

“In recent years, we’ve had a system, which results in shorter sentences, thereby keeping the total time served down,” Helgi states. “This has not increased repeat offenses.”

He notes that those who commit serious crimes, such as violent ones, do not have as great a chance as others to do community service or to receive a shortened sentence. We have a system, he stresses, where those who are not dangerous to the community are likelier to escape imprisonment than others. “The ones who demonstrate violent behavior do not have the same options,” he adds.

There is a tradition in the Icelandic justice system for offenders who commit the most serious crimes to serve two-thirds of their sentence.

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