Moderate criminal policy is a component of the welfare state

In Finnish criminal policy, research holds an exceptionally important role. According to Professor Tapio Lappi-Seppälä from the University of Helsinki’s Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy, that role should be maintained in the future.

The need for critical research and analysis is highlighted in circumstances where uncertainty and insecurity associated with societal change are being exploited as part of general policy-making. At times of crisis, punishment and the criminal code have provided a politically appealing means of defending against security threats. In practice, the effects of such action are fairly minor.

“The factors affecting the overall number of criminal offences are largely out of reach of penalties. More effective measures are to be found in social policy and the regulation of criminal situations,” says Tapio Lappi-Seppälä.

In the policy model prevalent in the Nordics, governments are guided by ‘policy founded on knowledge’. In other words, research-based knowledge has reached politicians well.

“In Finland, this relationship has also been bolstered by institutional structures. The Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy at the University of Helsinki is an example of this, as one of the institute’s statutory duties is to monitor trends related to crime and the functioning of the control system,” explains Lappi-Seppälä.

The professor believes that the institute’s efforts in establishing national monitoring systems and international research networks provide well-functioning tools for monitoring change in Finland and the surrounding regions as well as conducting related background analyses.

“And it offers us tools for assessing and developing the criminal policy system.”

Changes in punishments not reflected in crime statistics

Lappi-Seppälä posits that, in Finland, crime and punishment sometimes go hand in hand, but not all the time.

“The impact of criminal activity on the penal system has been greater than the other way round. Over time, it has been the custom to promote harsher penalties due to peaks in crime, such as in post-war periods.”

Once conditions have stabilised, crime has also subsided.

Significant changes in crime and punishment are linked with the economic, social, political and cultural elements of society. Increasing inequality brings with it a higher crime rate, subsequently resulting in tougher criminal policy. Other significant factors that have an effect on crime trends include the number of crime opportunities and the age distribution of the population.

“On the other hand, differences in the application of penal systems and changes observed in them appear to have had no effect on crime trends in a range of countries,” Lappi-Seppälä notes.

In Western developed countries, the primary trends in crime are fairly similar. At the same time, there are differences, some of them marked, in the application of penalties. For example, the prisoner population of the United States rose fivefold within a few decades, while in the same period in Finland, the number of prisoners decreased to one-third of the original figure.

“There are also examples of opposite changes in prisoner numbers in Europe. In spite of such variance, the similarity of crime trends in different countries is, frankly, nothing short of baffling.”

Nordic criminal policy enjoys international recognition

According to the professor, Nordic criminal policy is highly respected among experts and researchers, and an object of growing international interest. The policy is founded on the institutions, values and goals of the Nordic welfare state.

Finland’s criminal policy was liberalised when the country joined, as a latecomer, the club of Nordic welfare states in the 1960s and 1970s. To provide a point of reference, the United States and the United Kingdom tightened their criminal justice controls while initiating the deconstruction of their welfare state structures.

“In a well-functioning society of high trust and equality, which the Nordic societal model in international comparisons represents, both the need and will to apply criminal justice is lesser compared to many other systems,” Lappi-Seppälä points out.

Nordic social policy, which levels out inequalities among the population, has also contributed to reducing the impact of populist extremist movements that exploit the tensions and fears that occur between different sections of the population.

“In recent years, this pressure has also grown in the Nordic countries. Still, changes in criminal policy have so far remained relatively moderate,” says Lappi-Seppälä.

Award for lifetime contribution to research

The European Society of Criminology granted the European Criminology Award in 2019 to Tapio Lappi-Seppälä for his lifetime contribution to comparative criminology and criminal policy research.

In the justifications for granting the award, the society highlights Lappi-Seppälä’s activities as a scholar who has left an indelible mark on European criminology, a research organiser as well as a widely consulted international expert in whose research “empirical and comparative analyses are integrated into sociological and policy research as well as criminal-political analysis anchored in human rights”.

The award was presented at the annual meeting of the society held on September 2019 in Ghent, Belgium.