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Crime, Shame, and Recidivism: The Case of Iceland

NCJ Number
The British Journal of Criminology Volume: 42 Issue: 1 Dated: Winter 2002 Pages: 40-59
Eric P. Baumer; Richard Wright; Kristrun Kristinsdottir; Helgi Gunnlaugsson
Date Published
20 pages
This study examined offender recidivism in Iceland, a country that exhibits many of the social organizational hallmarks of communitarianism and relies heavily on shaming as a method of social control.
John Braithwaite has argued that communitarian societies are better able than others to reintegrate lawbreakers by shaming the offense without permanently stigmatizing the offender. Although Braithwaite focuses on crime rates, a logical corollary of his argument is that such societies should also exhibit markedly low rates of offender recidivism. Following Braithwaite, then, Iceland should exhibit a substantially lower rate of recidivism than less socially integrated societies, such as the United States or Great Britain. Iceland is culturally homogeneous; and, for a variety of reasons, experiences little immigration. This, coupled with a small population base, has resulted in dense, cohesive social networks in which virtually everyone shares common ancestors. In addition to their relational ties, Icelanders are highly dependent on one another to meet the myriad demands of a complex modern economy. The use of informal means to regulate behavior and resolve disputes in Iceland is prevalent and dates back to medieval times. Available evidence indicates that informal social control in Iceland is accomplished primarily through a strongly internalized culture of shame, in which community members not only develop consciences that deter criminal behavior, but also loathe the thought of losing respect in the eyes of others. Iceland's strong system of informal social control is accompanied by a limited reliance on coercive formal punishment. The data for this study included information on criminal convictions, sentences, admissions to prison, and the nature of punishment served by all persons sentenced to and released from prison in Iceland between 1994 and 1998. In order to measure recidivism, the study followed all persons released from Iceland's prisons between January 1, 1994, and November 30, 1998, (n=1,176) from the date of their release from custody through December 31, 1998, to determine whether and, if so, when they were reconvicted or reimprisoned for a new offense. Although there was some variation in recidivism rates within and across the nations examined in this study, the degree of variation was fairly small, with approximately 35-40 percent of persons released from prison being reimprisoned for committing a new crime; and between 45 and 55 percent of persons released from prison were reconvicted of a new crime within 6 years following their release from prison. Recidivism rates in Iceland were not appreciably lower than those observed in other nations. These findings suggest the possibility that the functional aspects of exclusion may override prevailing reintegrative forces, even in communitarian societies with low crime rates. 2 tables, 1 figure, and 104 references