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Norway Attacks: The Truth About the 21 Year Sentencing Limit

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The shocking events in Norway this weekend have drawn the attention of the world to a country that one could surmise is unprepared for such brutality.

Norway has, according to a 2010 report by Eurostat, one of the lowest murder rates in continental Europe; an incarceration rate lower than all but a handful of other countries (most of them in Scandinavia) and an actual prison population of 3,420, spread across 50 facilities in a population just shy of five million people. According to a report by the Howard League, Roughly 20% of this number are pretrial detainees.

It is easy to understand why, in a country as seemingly idyllic as Norway, sentencing provisions do not exist to deal with, to coin a popular phrase, 'the worst of the worst'. Or do they? By now almost everyone has read or heard about the apparent limit of 21 years on prison sentences in Norwegian law. This is not strictly true.

Granted, Norwegian sentencing policy, as of 2002, states that the maximum determinate sentence that can be given is 21 years. However there is a provision for an indeterminate sentence, also initially limited at 21 years and with parole eligibility after a mandatory 10 years confinement. In addition to this, the parole board can decide that the prisoner is a continuing danger to society and extend the inmate's sentence by five years at a time. This could theoretically result in a whole life sentence if the prisoner was never deemed safe for release.

Given that 32 year old Anders Behring Breivik has committed the most heinous crimes in Norway since the end of the Second World War, motivated by hatred and executed with shocking inhumanity and disregard for human life, it is highly unlikely that he will ever be considered safe for release. Added to which, the political pressure to punish him as severely as possible will most likely result in his sentence being extended far beyond even the extremely rare 21 year sentencing guideline. Very few prisoners in Norway serve more than 14 years. Serial killing nurse, Arnfinn Nesset, served 23 years for the murder of 22 patients and was released in 2004.

Norway has legislation in place to deal with men such as Breivik and should be left to do so without lurid and inaccurate speculation by foreign media on letting him "get off Scott free" or any of the other tabloid hyperbole synonymous with liberal sentencing policies.