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Based on crime statistics and registry data:

High number of Norwegian one-time offenders

As many as one-third of all Norwegian boys will be arrested by the police and charged with a crime, shows research project. For most of them, one brush with the law is sufficient.

Breaking the law is more common than one would imagine, concluded Researcher Torbjørn Skardhamar at Statistics Norway after having examined data on crime for the overall Norwegian population. It turns out that one of three Norwegian boys has been caught for – and charged with – committing a crime.

A surprising one-third of all Norwegian boys have been charged with a crime by the police. (Illustrative photo: Shutterstock) A surprising one-third of all Norwegian boys have been charged with a crime by the police. (Illustrative photo: Shutterstock)

However, only a very small percentage of these will become repeat offenders. On the whole, young Norwegian men between the ages of 15-25 will commit a crime that leads to prosecution only once in their lives.

Torbjørn Skardhamar (Photo: Statistics Norway/Studio Vest) Torbjørn Skardhamar (Photo: Statistics Norway/Studio Vest) “We see that there are a lot of boys and young men who engage in criminal acts. However, the group of individuals responsible for the majority of serious crime is small. In a nutshell, the number of people committing crime in Norway is high, but very few commit many crimes,” explains Dr Skardhamar.

Few reincarcerated

Together with his colleague Kjetil Telle at Statistics Norway, Dr Skardhamar also examined how many individuals released from prison ended up in prison again. They found that only 27 per cent of all men who were released from Norwegian prisons in 2003 had been reincarcerated by the end of 2006.

“That is a surprisingly small percentage,” says Dr Skardhamar.

“Comparisons with other countries are difficult due to differences in legislation and legal practice. However, in the US and the UK, for example, estimates that 60-80 per cent of all prisoners will end up in prison again in a couple of years are not uncommon.”

Jobs prevent crime

Dr Skardhamar has also found that many Norwegian prisoners enter directly into working life after serving their prison term and that this has a positive effect. “Those who had a job before going to prison have generally gone back to work after their release.”

The research project shows that an affiliation to working life plays an extremely important role in preventing repeat crimes. The risk of reincarceration is 63 per cent lower for individuals who have a job to go to than for those who do not. The findings apply to prisoners who share important similarities, such as the type of crime committed, time served, level of education, etc.

Diversified prison poulation

The Norwegian prison population is more diversified than one would often think. There are individuals who are generally well-functioning, well-integrated members of society while others are repeat offenders with serious alcohol and drug problems.

Dr Skardhamar’s study indicates post-release employment is important for the prisoner’s adaptation to society for all offenders regardless of principal offence. While the prison population is largely a marginalised population, the majority do in fact enter the labour market at some point after their release.

New in an international perspective

Thanks to a grant under the scheme for funding for independent projects at the Research Council of Norway, Dr Skardhamar has been able to carry out his study using several of the large-scale registries of social science data in Norway. By combining registry data with crime statistics he has come up with some new findings.

Norway quite possibly has the world’s best social science data registries, which provide excellent opportunities for research – including criminological research. (Illustrative photo: Shutterstock) Norway quite possibly has the world’s best social science data registries, which provide excellent opportunities for research – including criminological research. (Illustrative photo: Shutterstock) Until now, Norwegian criminological research has been mainly qualitative, making very little use of crime statistics. According to Dr Skardhamar, there is no international research that is directly comparable to the research he has conducted using Norwegian crime statistics since few other countries have similar opportunities to link information across multiple registers.

“Norwegian registry data is better than most registry data in the world, perhaps with the exception of Denmark and Sweden. There is tremendous untapped potential here for researchers,” he states.

Criminologists were wrong

Dr Skardhamar has found weaknesses in several prevailing notions relating to the criminal population. He has studied careers in crime closely, and questions whether qualitatively different types of criminals really do exist.

“Drawing a clear distinction, for example, between ‘chronic’ and ‘normal’ criminals – like several influential theories have done – is problematic.” Studies that claim to have identified these types of criminals have done so primarily using statistical methods that are not entirely appropriate for the task, he asserts.

“Application of typological theories may easily lead to the wrong conclusions. Other methods give other answers. We see that what we are really dealing with are degrees of involvement in criminal activity. Looking at criminals in shades of grey provides a truer picture than categorising criminals according to type – even though the grey is on a scale ranging from bright white to pitch black.”


Some of Dr Skardhamar’s findings have been published in the British Journal of Criminology, the world’s most renowned research journal in the field.

In autumn 2010, Dr Skardhamar was awarded the prestigious Young Criminologist Award by the European Society of Criminology.

Treasure trove of data

Norway has very high-quality social science data registries which extend across a long time span. This enables Norwegian social science researchers to follow individuals over time and generate results about the population as a whole as well as specific sub-populations.

The use of social science data registries in a targeted manner, preferably in combination with other data sources, may provide answers to a vast number of key questions.

There is currently an active debate as to whether Norwegian social scientists – who have one of the world’s best data registries at their disposal – should be making greater use of quantitative data. Dr Skardhamar is among those who believe that these vital sources of knowledge are significantly underexploited.

“Social science research often has political implications, and registry data may provide new insight in areas where access to data would otherwise be difficult. This has certainly been the case in criminological research,” concludes Dr Skardhamar.

Written by:
Bård Amundsen/Else Lie. Translation: Victoria Coleman/Carol B. Eckmann
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