As the prison population spirals out of control in the United States, Sweden finds itself with an interesting and opposite predicament: it has too many prisons and not enough prisoners. For this reason, the Scandinavian country recently decided to shutter four prisons and a remand center.
The issue isn't lack of crime in Sweden—in fact, the crime rate has actually increased slightly there—but rather a strong emphasis on rehabilitating criminals, rather than locking them up. The prison population declined 6 percent between 2011 and 2012. In the United States, by comparison, federal facilities are 40 percent over capacity.
The New York Times highlighted this contrast in an editorial last week describing what the U.S. can learn from European prisons, where the vast majority of stays are less than 12 months. In U.S. state prisons, for example, the average is three years. It's not just that prison stays are shorter in Europe, however; prisons treat prisoners differently, giving them more privacy and freedom, and generally gearing their time behind bars toward reentering society. And, at the end of the day, that produces better results than locking people up and throwing away the key.