Here’s What Justice Looks Like the World Over

The July 2011 killing spree of Norwegian Anders Breivik, which took the lives of 77 individuals, outraged people around the world. When the Norwegian criminal justice system sentenced Breivik to just 21 years in a three-room cell with a television and an exercise room, many people were stunned by what seemed to be a light sentence for such a heinous crime.

The philosophy behind the sentencing illuminates a stark difference in the way justice is viewed in different countries, such as the U.S. and Norway. The American system, like many in the Western World, is built on retributive justice. Retributive justice is based on the premise that justice is served when a punishment fits the crime, according to theConflict Solutions Center (CSC).

A country like Norway has a restorative system, which is based more on the idea that justice is more than punishment, and considers values such as fairness and morality for both offenders and victims. Restorative justice involves the community and victims in a way that differs from retributive justice, according to the CSC.

These fundamental differences in how justice is delivered and served can play out in dramatically different ways for both victims and offenders. Different cultures approach the concept of justice from different routes. History shows that regardless of good intentions, the act of carrying out justice can have unintended consequences.


History of Justice

Even in the relatively short history of the U.S. justice system, there are tragic examples ofstories where justice was improperly served. As part of human nature the possibility of error can never be fully accounted for, and therefore the justice system has had to adapt overtime.

The advancement of DNA technology has had an important impact on the justice system as it has found grave errors in sentencing. There have been numerous cases where individuals spent years behind bars or were even sentenced to death for a crime they did not commit.

There has been a shift away from the death penalty in most U.S. states, like West Virginia, and death sentences are at an all-time low. Public support for the death penalty has dropped in favor of life without parole, and across the country, states like Connecticut are reconsidering their death penalty statutes, according to the Equal Justice organization.

There has been some movement encouraging a shift away from punishment-laden justice systems into a more restorative system. There are several pieces ofdata that suggest that society as a whole is better off with a restorative approach because there are higher victim and offender satisfaction rates, restitution compliance, and lower rates of repeat offenders. The recidivism rate in Norway, for example, is at 20 percent compared to 52 percent in the U.S., according to the Library of Congress.

But change to the justice system is a slow process. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Junior said that the slow evolution is intentional. He told an audience in Indiana that it’s because justice is in the “most deliberative, stable and politically insulated branch of government.”

A look at the global variations in justice systems shows how intimately tied cultural sysytems of norms and values are tied to justice.


Justice From Different Angles

It is easy to pass judgement on what may seem like a too easy or too punitive system. Since the attacks of September 11 there has been much debate about the adequacy of the justice system to properly convict and punish terrorists.

Many controversies stemmed from the way the U.S. handled the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and whether Americans overstepped their rights in carrying out justice against terrorists. The way Americans chose to handle terrorists differs dramatically from several programs in Saudi Arabia that also aimed to carry out justice of convicted terrorists.

In Saudi Arabia there was larger effort placed behind rehabilitation. The justice system implemented a program that attempted to reform captured terrorists with religious education and even used art therapy. The idea is to reintroduce militants back into society, and once released the government continues to play an important role in their path to rehabilitation.

Many people around the world connect Saudi Arabia as an oppressive regime, yet the Saudi concept of rehabilitation seems far less brutal than perhaps the American system. This demonstrates how dramatically different and complex justice systems are around the world.


Globalization and the Justice System

Though justice systems vary dramatically by culture the impact of globalization has forced conversations on how to carry out international law, and protect certain rights across borders. One study at Cornell University discussed how difficult a process this can be.

The paper describes how corporations shift capital and employment across borders, which in some cases allows them to smudge “traditional boundaries between national legal and economic systems” and in doing so “courts and laws, still bound by national borders, lose power over corporations, which are then given free rein to diminish labor standards to the point of violating even fundamental human rights.”

It can be assumed that this complex issue will only grow more important as globalization shows no signs of stopping. Addressing these issue, and creating reforms will take an international effort, but is vital to the rights of citizens everywhere.

It is important to think holistically about how culture, history and values play into the way justice is communicated and implemented in countries around the world.


Further Resources

The New Hampshire Bar Association provides a comprehensive overview of the American Legal system, and how it functions in carrying out all arms of the justice system.

North Carolina Wesleyan College provides a website that provides an overview of comparative justice, looking at how systems have evolved over time in different geographic locations and according to cultural and societal norms.

The United Nations has a website dedicated to surveying trends on international crime and criminal justice systems. The site includes data, news and recent publications.

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