Effects of Criminal Policy Reforms

– A research environment funded by the Swedish Research Council: Swedish Criminal Justice Policy Action Lab (SCAL)

General information

Ulrika Ahrsjö, Olof Bäckman, Magdalena Dominguez, Hans Grönqvist, Peter Lindström, Susan Niknami, Mårten Palme
Participating Organizations
Linnaeus University, Stockholm University, London School of Economics, Stockholm School of Economics
Economics and Criminology
Swedish Research Council

Our Research

In recent years, stricter sentences and increased resources for the police have been extensively discussed as a way to address crime in society. Several criminal justice policy reforms have been introduced (e.g., stricter penalties for serious drug offenses, violent crimes and weapon offenses, as well as longer sentences for young offenders).

These reforms contributed to the average prison sentence in Sweden increasing by approximately 50 percent since 2015 (see figure). At the same time, there is a heated debate about introducing further reforms. To what extent can these reforms contribute to reducing crime?

Methodological problems

Advocates of harsher sentences often argue that severe punishments deter crime. Opponents usually claim that strict penalties may increase crime by increasing social and economic inequalities. However, several methodological problems make it difficult to determine the effect of harsher sentences and increased police resources on crime.

For instance, society often introduces stricter sentences or increases police resources as a direct result of high levels of crime (reverse causality). Long prison sentences are also more likely to be given to individuals who already have relatively poorer prospects for rehabilitation (omitted risk factors).

These methodological problems are challenging to resolve because, in general, it is not possible to conduct randomized experiments in the same way as in fields like medicine. Although international research has made significant progress in how modern data can be used to address these difficulties, it is unclear to what extent results from other countries can be translated to the Swedish context.

Unique opportunities in Sweden

The Swedish Criminal Justice Policy Action Lab (SCAL) was created with the aim of providing expert skills to address these methodological problems with the goal of informing decision-makers about the optimal criminal justice policy to combat crime. Sweden offers unique opportunities to answer these questions through its access to rich individual-based data.

SCAL is composed of some of Sweden's most successful quantitatively oriented crime researchers. The SCAL is a cross-university and interdisciplinary research environment, which is also linked to leading crime research environments worldwide. SCAL takes advantage of the unique synergies between the fields of criminology and economics to create an environment aimed at generating research results that will transform Swedish criminal justice policy and ensure that the knowledge produced is disseminated to the surrounding society.

Photo at the top of the page: The Swedish Prison and Probation Service