Tow Youth Justice Advocates Gain Firsthand Understanding of Norwegian Justice System
Danielle Cooper, Ph.D., CPP and Brittany LaMarr recently visited correctional facilities and met with stakeholders in Norway, learning more about the justice system in a country with a much lower crime rate and a very different approach to youth justice. They expect the trip will inform their work as advocates and as educators.
January 18, 2023
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
As a researcher and educator, Danielle Cooper, Ph.D., CPP has a long history of working with local community organizations and nonprofits in the field of youth justice. She recently had the opportunity to expand her knowledge of youth justice by exploring another country’s approach and policies.
An associate professor of criminal justice and director of research for the Tow Youth Justice Institute at the University, Dr. Cooper recently returned from a trip to Norway. While visiting, she and fellow Tow staff member Brittany LaMarr met with individuals across the justice system, from those serving time in the facilities to program volunteers and correctional administrators.
Visiting a country with a different approach to corrections and youth justice, they gained a theoretical understanding of Norway’s systems and policies, visited a halfway house, and learned how different the country’s system differs from those in the U.S. They chose to visit Norway because it has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – something the U.S. has not done. In addition to having less overall crime, Norway has only a handful of youths in its justice system – far fewer than the state of Connecticut alone.
“We go on trips like this in order to better rebut when people say that nothing is happening to better handle justice,” Dr. Cooper said. “People might say you have to treat people a certain way if they’ve committed certain types of offenses, and Norway is saying, ‘that’s not how we feel about it. That’s not how we feel about our people.’”
‘Saying things that blew your mind’
Dr. Cooper says one thing that stood out to her was Norway’s use of the import model, meaning the professionals a youth in the justice system is in contact with – such as guards, educators, and health care providers – are brought in from the community to work with them. She was also interested in how certain offenses kids are criminalized for, such as vandalism and truancy, are considered conduct issues in Norway – issues that would likely fall under the purview of child protective services instead of the justice system.
Low-risk offenders in Norway may also be allowed to leave facilities to go to doctor’s appointments, or in some cases, to school. Youths in the Norwegian justice system are therefore much more engaged with the community. Dr. Cooper also points out their level of risk is judged not just by their offense but by the current risk they are presenting. She praised the system’s use of solitary confinement only for purposes of de-escalation, not punishment. An individual can – and is encouraged to – leave as soon as they have calmed down.
“I think one of the most impactful lessons to me was a presentation we got from what they call their activities team during which they kept saying things that blew your mind,” said Dr. Cooper. “They said it’s important that people in facilities are not suffering from loneliness and that they have rights to privacy. Staff try to get them to be more engaged, to challenge them, and get them to come out of their cell.”
‘Invested in making better neighbors’
LaMarr, who serves as project manager for the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee for the Tow Youth Justice Institute, was similarly impressed by how the Norwegian system treats those in the criminal justice system as “human beings, deserving of opportunity and worthy of investment.
“This trip was such an important opportunity for us because it allowed us the visceral experience of interacting with various stakeholders in the Norwegian criminal legal system and an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue,” she continued. “Reading and researching a concept and idea is one thing; feeling it and living it is another. This opportunity allowed all of us to emotionally connect to the work we were doing and the information we were receiving, and that creates a stronger impact on how we move this information forward.”
LaMarr says she expects the trip to inform the decisions they make at Tow, as well as the policies they consider as well as other options for how youth justice can be handled in Connecticut and across the country. She hopes it will help foster policymakers’ ability to see youths as children and not delinquents. She believes children are better served by being connected to resources and to the community rather than by being imprisoned.
“Collectively, the Norwegian society and systems are invested in making better neighbors out of individuals who are currently incarcerated, by connecting them to the community, school, health, family, and support,” she explains. “Here in the States, we have a system that’s fundamental purpose is retribution, dehumanization, disenfranchisement, and oppression – a complete disconnection from normalcy and things necessary to help build people up.”
‘I’ll never be the same after this trip’
Representing the field of youth justice, Dr. Cooper and LaMarr traveled to Norway with a group of more than a dozen individuals including policymakers, members of the Department of Corrections, and even a film crew. Staff from Connecticut Public Television filmed them at corrections facilities in Norway, and the footage may air this spring.
While learning about the rights and community involvement of those in the justice system, the group visited a full music studio that individuals have access to, as well as a podcast studio. Those in the justice system record a podcast there, and it is aired on Norway’s national radio each week.
Dr. Cooper, who is teaching at the University’s campus in Prato, Italy, for the spring I accelerated term, says what she learned in Norway not only informs her research and work in the community, but also provided important information that she believes will help her in the classroom while connecting with her students. It also inspired her to consider how the American criminal justice system might be improved.
“In Norway, when there is opportunity for de-escalation, one of the quick quotes that they gave to us is, ‘Are you going to be water or are you going to be gasoline?” she said. “I can apply that to being mindful of my students’ needs, to be sure not to add gasoline if a student is feeling anxious.
“I imagine I’ll never be the same after this trip,” she continued. “I’ll forever view our facilities and practices under this new understanding of what’s possible. That gives me hope that maybe we'll agree about what the Connecticut or the United States way can be. It helps to have a model, so that at least people can't tell us that no one ever achieved something like this.”