Opinion: Hug a Hoodie or Mug a Hoodie? What would Borgen do?

It’s really rather a good feeling being a Danish Brit nowadays. Repeated requests for jumper-knitting instructions are admittedly a drawback, but one I can live with. More interesting are daily questions about policy matters as practised Borgen style. (For those who’ve been living under a stone for the past several months, “Borgen” is short for Christiansborg, the Danish Parliament building as well as the title of the appointment-to-view Danish version of the West Wing).

“How is it that the Skandis apparently get it so right?” Or “How can you be the happiest people on earth while, at the same time, paying the most tax?” The trickle of enquiries has now become a steady stream so, as I often frankly have no idea what the answer might be, I’ve decided to start an irregular blog, which looks at UK policy in the news and asks: “What Would Borgen Do?”

And what better place to launch this initiative than with Call-me-Dave’s new “tough but intelligent” Rehabilitation Revolution initiative?

Let’s examine the evidence.

According to The Tenth United Nations Survey of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems (bit of a mouthful there), Denmark enjoys far lower levels of criminality than those experienced in the UK. While employing 196 police per 100,000 population, the Danish prison population, for example, is just 59 per 100,000 citizens. The UK, by comparison, boasts a hefty 257 police per 100,000 population in order to incarcerate a whopping 129 criminals per 100,000 people. Granted, this may be a mere fifth of the US prison population (largest in the world)  but it’s twice what Borgen manages to achieve. Even more impressively, the reoffending rate for released prisoners in Denmark is 29% compared with 47% in the UK .

So what’s going on?

Cameron says

David Cameron’s view is that:

Personal responsibility is at the heart of the criminal justice system, meaning long prison sentences are the only “thinkable” punishment for certain serious offenders.

This is what victims and society deserve… And the society bit matters. Retribution is not a dirty word; it is important to society that revulsion against crime is properly recognised, and acted on by the state on our behalf.

The model of payments by results for [private] firms has to be accelerated.”The benefit of a payment-by-results system is it forces the organisations working with you to look for what really does work because they don’t get paid unless they do.” Now where have we heard that before? Was it that A4E shambles? or the G4S debacle? Whatever. The ‘new’ idea is basically: ‘if it moves, privatise it’. And walk away.

Borgen says

Prison is a last resort in Denmark. The Danish justice system is based on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Writing in The New Statesman (September 4, 2006) Nick Pearce reported that Denmark “does all it can to keep people out of jail, and once there, to prepare them for life back in the community. Its sentences are short, but its re-offending rates far lower. In Denmark, prison appears to work for the right reasons.” The average Danish prison sentence is just 6.2 months, with just two percent of Danish prisoners spending more than two years in jail.

So how does even the toughest jail in Denmark, keep the reoffending rate so low? A clue comes in the number of female prison officers who patrol the corridors. About half of the officers are women. The idea behind this is that women guards are often better than men in calming down angry prisoners, and the number of women helps the prisoners behave more normally. They don’t just meet criminals and male guards, they interact with women.

That is a fundamental principle in Danish prison regimes – normalisation. The Danish prison regime is based on normalisation, a principle of openness and responsibility, because they think it’s the best way of avoiding reconviction. And, apparently, they’re right.

Go girls!

* Kirsten de Keyser sits on the Camden Liberal Democrat Executive and is a member of Social Liberal Forum and Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine. She blogs here.

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  • Simon Titley 28th Oct '12 - 9:43am

    Comparing the British and Danish systems of criminal justice, it is obvious which works better.

    But the question we must ask is which has more influence on British politicians: dispassionate evidence or the passionate prejudices of tabloid-driven populism?

    Given that most British politicians these days believe in followership rather than leadership, we can see why most of them opt for the wrong answer.

  • James McLaren 28th Oct '12 - 10:26am


    You should move to Scotland, we need you here and you might get a good hearing for your Danish model (of prisoner/ criminal rehabilitation). Certainly a higher chance of having it adopted, bit by bit.

  • Simon Titley 28th Oct '12 - 12:01pm

    But Jedibeeftrix, you imply that the Danish approach to criminal justice is dependent on paying more tax. While it is true that Scandinavian countries pay more tax overall, in this instance it would seem that Danish criminal justice policy costs a lot less than the British one.This presents no problem for social liberals.

  • Glad to see the “What would Borgen do?” Blog up & running Kirsten & hope to see more posts … I think as a party we shouldn’t be afraid of supporting reductions in the number of police & putting more focus on prevention and work with charities & community groups. Certainly I’ve heard Brian Paddick speak very impressively in this regard & I’m all for being guided where we have expert opinion in the party

  • As I recall, our crime rate has been going down since Michael Howards time. It was going up before. Perhaps we should ask what Michael Howard did right.

  • Kirsten de Keyser 28th Oct '12 - 9:00pm

    The reference to Danes paying more tax is merely tangential to this topic. I mentioned it only as an example of the standard question asked of people from Denmark.

    Simon Titley is likely correct that Danish criminal justice policy costs a lot less than the British one as a percentage of GDP. I haven’t looked at these figures so don’t hang me on them! What is certain is that the much lower reoffending rate will save billions over time, as well as creating a far more harmonious society.

    And thanks Liz, I was finally sufficiently annoyed about coalition policy to actually do something about this blog, hope to be prolific. Sort of. I’ll pepper my contributions with lots of links and, you never know, some of it might just stick in the right places.

  • Kirsten de Keyser 28th Oct '12 - 10:23pm

    Oh, and James, don’t think that I haven’t thought of moving to Scotland. Infinitely more enlightened imo!

  • Kenneth Albret 29th Oct '12 - 8:46am

    Thanks very much Kirsten for putting-up the blog “What would Borgen do?”. As a fellow Dane, I’m very much looking forward to reading it, and hopefully gain some good insight into the differences between the Scandinavian and the UK model of Government.
    Though “Borgen” is fiction, it though, does reflect facets of Danish society and the multiple considerations that politicians at parliament necessarily have to have when considering avenues of courses of actions, in the best tradition of the Danish traditions of social and liberal values.
    It also shows how the notion of “coalition government” always do have to compromise on solutions, as partners pressurise each other according to their electoral “standing” and do provide for a continous “red thread” for the country through elections and succesive governments.
    The coalition experiment at Westminster is just that! It will never be a “true” depiction for the public of the strength of coalitions as the Parliament, without PR, always will have a better chance of gaining majority, thereby not requiring consensus decisions. In my view, the British parliamentary solution, does not, longterm, provide for an effective developmental policy mechanism, but instead “waste” energy on changing policies implemented by previous “other side of the chamber” governments.
    The time to adopt a more mature way of government than the present Westminster model, surely must be a good selling point towards the current political parties and the electorate as it surely is in the country’s interest? Well, maybe not, as the current parliamentary system encourages a form of democracy based on confrontation (as can be seen with the physical layout in the House of Commons) and with representation by several non-elected members (in the House of Lords). This present system can never reform into a serious parliamentary system based on dialogue, inclusion and progress, as major political parties stands to loose too much power by adopting PR and creating an inclusive and transparent system, that shuns the verbal attack and disorder seen in the House of Commons and similarly removes any non-elected elements (such as the House of Lords).
    Once again thanks Kirsten for starting the Blog! Tak skal du ha’

  • Kirsten de Keyser 29th Oct '12 - 11:34am

    Selv tak Kenneth. In fact, your insightful post could have emanated from inside my own head. Please keep fleshing out future Borgen blogposts.
    Do I take it from jedibeeftrix’s post that you back FPTP and that you consider the various European systems subject to ‘shady back-room deals resulting in mediocre lowest-common-denominator policy’?
    If that is where you’re coming from, it’s somewhat troubling…

  • Kirsten de Keyser 30th Oct '12 - 9:51am

    “But it is an apparent solution for Denmark which would be trying to fix a non-existent problem in Britain.”

    My view about this is fairly simple – I believe in representative democracy and FPTP simply does not provide the most equitable form of representation – in Britain or anywhere else.

  • Kirsten de Keyser 30th Oct '12 - 8:06pm

    That, we will never know but what we do know is that mathematics disagree with you.

  • Kirsten de Keyser 31st Oct '12 - 11:15am

    No actually.
    A zillion words, far cleverer than anything I could come up with, have already be penned on the issue.

    Here are a few suggestions:

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