Anders Breivik’s Imprisonment Raises New Questions About Crime And Punishment

Commentary | As more of the details of Anders Breivik’s life in prison begin to emerge, a contentious debate is occurring about the entire concept of crime and punishment. Breivik brutally murdered 77 innocent human beings, yet he only received 100 days for each of his victims. His 21 year long sentence, and the life he lives behind bars, has forced society to take a new look at a very old problem.

While many people were already puzzled and disgusted by the ridiculously light sentence Breivik received for his crimes, nothing prepared them for the shock they felt when the details of his imprisonment were revealed. Breivik lives in a three room suite, equipped with a laptop computer, television and exercise equipment. Even if he serves his entire sentence, he may leave prison a relatively young man, when everything is all said and done.

The abandonment of any reasonable justice in this case will provide little comfort to the survivors of Breivik’s crimes or the family members of the 77 human beings whose lives were torn away from them without warning. While Breivik sits at his laptop or uses his exercise machine, his victims are all gone; condemned to rot in the earth for all eternity. At best, they will be frozen in the memory of a lover or parent. More than likely, many will suffer an anonymous fate, and fade away like an old photograph.

I do understand the opposition to capital punishment; especially considering the way the death penalty has been used against the poor and minorities. But we are not talking about executing Breivik; instead we are asking why someone, who was found to be legally sane, was given such a trivial sentence, after committing such a terrible crime. A sentence that may allow him to walk away with much of his life still intact.

In order to grasp the insanity of Breivik’s imprisonment, we must examine the philosophy of criminal justice in Noway. A nation that constantly proclaims its own advancement and enlightenment, despite the fact that the country is rated the most antisemitic state in the Western world. A country where Jews are vilified, and Israel is constantly condemned as a murderous nation, yet a real murderer gets a slap on this wrist in a holiday camp after he slaughters 77 helpless men and women.

Breivik's Prison Cell With Exercise Machines

Norway’s left leaning media is famous for writing scathing editorials every time a Jew builds a house on his or her own land in Israel. They justified the reasoning behind the leniency shown to Breivik with their own twisted logic. His sentence, they explain, “is consistent with Norway’s general approach to criminal justice. Like the rest of Europe . . . Norway no longer has the death penalty and considers prison more a means for rehabilitation than retribution… Many Europeans consider America’s criminal justice system to be cruelly punitive.”

At this point, I have a confession to make. While everything I told you is true, I deliberately left a few details out of my article. I have done what the provocateurs on both sides of the argument usually do and appealed to your emotions by hand picking my facts. I purposefully steered your opinion in the direction I chose.

I told you about Norway’s historic problems with the Jews, which is in no way relevant to the length of Breivik’s sentence, but served to portray Norwegians unfavorably. I didn’t tell you the totality of his term of imprisonment and I didn’t tell you about the remarkable effectiveness of Norway’s Criminal Justice System. I apologize for misleading you, but you have experienced, first hand, how public opinion is controlled and manipulated on a regular basis.

Now that we are all on the same page, lets look at the entire picture. Before we begin, here is another image, just in case you thought Breivik really went to a holiday camp. Now you will have no doubt the man is in a real prison with guards, guns, grey skies, lots of cement, warning signs, gates, and barbed wire everywhere.

The Entrance To The Prison Holding Anders Breivik

Anders Breivik received a sentence of 21 years of preventive detention for terrorist acts. If the court still considers him a risk at the end of his initial term of imprisonment, his time can be extended indefinitely in five-year intervals. Every single expert on the Norwegian Criminal Justice System says Breivik will remain in prison for the rest of his life. He will never be released until it is time for his trip to the undertaker.

There is another important component to this story and that is the care and protection provided to the families of the men and women killed by Breivik and to the survivors of his rampage.

In America, the prosecution represents the State or Federal government. The victims do not have a seat at the prosecutor’s table. They are unseen faces, unless they are called as witnesses during the trial. It is only during sentencing, when they are permitted to make a short Victim Impact Statement, that the victim, or their family, is directly acknowledged by the court.

In Norway, the system is based on the unique concept of Restorative Justice. Instead of a system built entirely on punishment, where caged prisoners spend endless years locked in cells until they are ready to destroy the world, Norway believes in another approach. The goal is healing; for the victims, for the society, and for the criminal.

The pioneer of Restorative Justice, Howard Zehr, described the benefits of this new model of crime and punishment:

“Restorative justice thus begins with a concern for victims and how to meet their needs, for repairing the harm as much as possible, both concretely and symbolically. In the Breivik trial, this meant giving every victim (survivors as well as the families of those killed) a direct voice. Victims were individually represented by 174 court-appointed lawyers. The court heard 77 autopsy reports, 77 descriptions of how Breivik had killed them, and 77 minute-long biographies “voicing his or her unfulfilled ambitions and dreams.”

The philosophy behind Restorative Justice is summed up to perfection in a New York Times Op-Ed by Toril Moi and David L. Paletz. It expressed the remarkable concept that society as a whole receives greater benefit when justice relieves suffering and brings true healing, instead of mere retribution:

“The court took upon itself the task of bearing public witness for Norwegian society, and for history, to the truth of the Oslo bombing and the massacre at Utoya. By affirming the humanity of each victim, the court tried to satisfy a traumatized society’s thirst for truth and justice without denying the defendant’s right to a fair hearing.”

“The Breivik trial provides an example of the opposite point of view: that full acknowledgment of the truth of human suffering can have healing effects, for the victims and their families, and for a whole nation. That, even more than the verdict itself, should be the lasting legacy of this horrific event in Norway’s history.”

The criminal also undergoes the healing process; although many are initially defiant and some remain defiant to the bitter end:

“The restorative model encourages offenders to understand the consequences of their actions or to empathize with victims. He or she is encouraged to take responsibility for making things right with victims and the community as far as possible. Restitution can include money and services, to victims and the community.”


Breivik is a prime example of a criminal who enters prison displaying his crimes as a badge of honor. He remains a racist ultra nationalist, who sees absolutely no reason to apologize for his actions. He believes he did his patriotic duty to protect his nation from the depredations of dangerous foreign enemies. He stood before the court at his sanity hearing and proclaimed, “I wish to apologize to all militant nationalists that I wasn’t able to execute more.”

Many of you are probably thinking “Why the hell does anyone care about this guy? We should just lock him in a deep dark hole for the rest of his life or take him out back, stand him against a wall, and blow his brains out.” Sorry to disappoint, but Europe banned capital punishment. Even Anders Breivik, at his most obnoxious, is given fair and humane treatment under the law.

There is a method to this madness. Instead of spending decades or even the rest of his life in a bare cell, brooding on his hate, Breivik will live in relative comfort, in hope that if the desire to change or make amends ever enters his mind, it will not be tempered by years of a miserable, barren existence as a caged beast. There may still be enough humanity left in him to actually make some small difference, even if all that Breivak ever does is to write a letter of apology to the family of one of his victims.

On a more practical level, Restorative Justice has a proven track record for reducing recidivism, preventing violence in prisons, helping inmates adjust to incarceration, and reducing the financial impact on society. It means the prisoner has an opportunity to remain a member of the human race and live with dignity.

All things considered, this is an extremely difficult and controversial subject. While human beings often exhibit great compassion, even for the worst of the worst, we also have a well defined need for justice and fairness. When this need is ignored, we are less happy with our lives.

I can not tell you what to believe or which way is better. I do not have the right. I can tell you to keep an open mind and be willing to listen to both sides of the argument. We may approve the words of C.S. Lewis, who was a critic of excessive Humanitarianism in the Criminal Justice System:

“It is essential to oppose the Humanitarian theory of punishment, root and branch, wherever we encounter it. It carries on its front a semblance of mercy which is wholly false. That is how it can deceive men of good will. Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful. That is the important paradox. As there are plants which will flourish only in mountain soil, so it appears that Mercy will flower only when it grows in the crannies of the rock of Justice; transplanted to the marshlands of mere Humanitarianism, it becomes a man-eating weed.”

Or we may accept the words of the legendary poet, song writer, and folksinger, Phil Ochs, who believed in the dignity of all human beings and advocated for compassion and understanding:

“Show me a prison, show me a jail”
“Show me a pris’ner whose face has grown pale”

“And I’ll show you a young man”
“With many reasons why”
“There but for fortune, go you or I”

“There but for fortune, go you or I”