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Finland Table of Contents


Principles of Criminal Justice

Finnish thinking on criminal policy as it evolved in the 1980s regarded the punishment of offenders essentially as society's reproach to the criminal. In the abstract, the type and the length of punishment prescribed by law were considered indicative of the norms of society regarding the seriousness of the offense and the potential threat posed to society by the offender. In practical terms, punishments were standardized, and they were imposed consistently for all categories of crimes, in the interest of ensuring equality in the application of the law. For this reason, the penal code restricted the discretionary power of the courts in imposing sentences.

Imprisonment was not regarded as benefiting the offender, nor was the length of time in an institution to be set on the basis of need for treatment; it was accepted that punishment was detrimental and should be used sparingly. Thus, the tendency has been to rely on light punishment, especially on fines, and to emphasize short sentences of a few weeks or months.

In addition to ensuring that sentences were equal and proportional, the penal code advised that sentences imposed should not cause the "unregulated accumulation of sanctions," that is, when assessing punishment, courts should avoid several sanctions' being imposed--such as dismissal from office, or revocation of a driver's permit--as the result of a single offense. The courts were also expected to ensure that punishment was not extended indirectly to the offender's family.

The tendency since the early 1970s has been to decriminalize a number of actions formerly indictable under the penal code. The modifications in the code reflected changing priorities in assessing the seriousness of criminal conduct, changing norms of social behavior, and an attempt to distinguish between premeditated crime and spontaneous actions. Among the acts decriminalized were creating a public disturbance because of drunkenness as well as certain offenses against property, such as petty theft. Homosexual acts between consenting adults also ceased to be regarded as a criminal offense. Stiff penalties for offenses against persons, for threatened violence against persons, and for drunken driving remained unaffected, however.

Finland has been less willing than other Scandinavian countries to replace punishment with other measures, such as treatment-oriented institutions for repeat offenders. Under legislation enacted in 1931, offenders "dangerous to private or public safety" could be confined in a separate institution for recidivists after their sentences had expired. In 1971 the law was amended so that property offenses could no longer be considered grounds for indeterminate incarceration, and conditions under which violent offenders could be so confined were more narrowly defined. As a result, the number of offenders held in internment of any kind fell dramatically, from nearly 400 in the 1960s to fewer than 10 in 1984.

Data as of December 1988