Democracy, history and class structure explain Finland's lenient sentencing

The lenient sentences often handed down by Finnish courts reflect the nation's social and political roots.

A volume of Finnish law text. Image: Jorge Gonzalez / Yle

The sentences for a wide range of offences in Finland are among the most lenient in Europe.

Finnish people themselves often wonder why. The answer, say experts, is to be found in social and political norms and their development throughout history.

While in general the sentences handed down by courts in Finland tend to be less severe than those in many countries, there is a sharp contrast between the punishment meted out for different types of crime. By international comparison, sentences in convictions for violent crime and sexual offences are light.

Meanwhile, economic crimes and crimes against property can carry severely stiff penalties.

During the period of 2016–2018, 13 percent of all defendants convicted of a serious accounting offence received a prison sentence, the average length of which was 23 months, or almost two years.

During that same time period, only just over 7 percent of people convicted of assault were sentenced to prison and the length of those sentences was about four and a half months.

Slightly more than 6 percent of those convicted of sexually exploiting a minor received a prison sentence. Average jail time was 14 months.

In part, this contrast in sentencing can be explained by past structures of social class and wealth. At the time when Finland was still a society sharply divided by class, the property of the wealth was strongly protected by law, and so crimes against property were subject to substantial penalties.

Problems largely affecting the lower classes, such as violent crime, were shrugged off with light sentences.

Need for change

Although progress has been seen since the days of highly structured class society, with laws and sentences updated, there is still more than a little that could be changed.

Jukka Kekkonen, Professor of Legal History and Roman Law at the University of Helsinki, argues that sentences for crimes against life, health and physical integrity, for example, could all be made more severe.

"Changes would be necessary to ensure that people do not feel that physical integrity is in any way inferior to, for example, goods and property, meaning that the protection of physical integrity would not be subordinate to other legal interests," Professor Kekkonen says.

According to Juha Kääriäinen, who directs the research unit for criminal sanctions in criminology and legal policy studies at the University of Helsinki, there has been a change in the debate surrounding sentencing.

"Crimes against persons are being taken more seriously. At the forefront of this debate are sexual offences, but I'd think that the same applies to all violent crime," Kääriäinen says.

The prosperity of society also affects the debate on punishment. As wealth and ownership expand, their significance in some ways decrease.

"For example, the relative value of a bicycle has fallen, and the loss of property is no longer as big a thing as it was 20 or 30 years ago," Kääriäinen points out.

"The value of human physical integrity will remain, and it has actually increased. The gap between material values and human physical and social integrity, including issues such as defamation, has grown," he adds.

Growing debate on sentencing

There is also a link between lenient sentencing practices and democracy. When people from different walks of life and from different social groups get involved in decision-making, legal penalties are typically reduced.

The severity or leniency of punishment for breaking the law is one lens through which a society can be analysed.

"When punishments become harsher, it is usually a sign that we are moving away from democracy and the ideal of equality," Professor Kekkonen reflects, adding that a harsher political tone has started to appear in the debate in Finland in recent years.

Views on crime and punishment are used to sway voters.

"It has led to short-sighted criminal polices in Finland, as well. Tougher sentences are demanded on the basis of individual cases, sometimes with good cause, but most often without," he concludes.

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Jukka Kekkonen studies the penalties for crimes in the context of modern practice and legal history at the University of Helsinki. Image: Jorge Gonzalez / Yle

According to Juha Kääriäinen, the severity of punishments also indicates the state of society.

"It reflects society's attitude to the crime in question. Punishment for sexual offences, for example, has moved in a tougher direction within the past ten years, reflecting the debate within society," Kääriäinen says.

High-profile criminal cases stir up the debate over sentencing and can bring about change for both good and bad.

While it is only speculative, Kekkonen says that for example, the recent hacking of the Vastamo psychotherapy centre has received so much publicity that if and when the perpetrator is caught and convicted they are likely to receive a long sentence, a kind of 'bonus punishment', because of the public attention and widespread condemnation of the crime.

Sentencing and social control

Understanding sentencing by the courts also requires some historical perspective.

Punishment for crimes in 17th-century Europe was by and large extremely harsh by modern standards. Less severe sentences were introduced in the mid-18th century, and from that time on continued to decrease in severity up into the 1980s.

It is typical that societies with wide economic or class gaps between different groups, impose tough sentences in criminal cases.

"Those in power have to maintain that power with a lot of control," as Professor Kekkonen puts it.

The Finnish Penal Code was reformed in the 1970s when penalties and controls were relaxed. In recent decades, the trend has reversed. Over the last twenty years, a tougher line has emerged in society’s attitudes and punishments that are meted out to offenders.

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The Finnish penal code was reformed in the 1970s. Image: Jorge Gonzalez / Yle

According to Jukka Kekkonen, populist parties in particular are seeking easy solutions and easy explanations. Historically, right-wing parties have been involved in pushing this trend, but working-class political groups have also occasionally sought to increase voter support through tougher criminal policies.

However, Kekkonen says, tougher policies rolled out in the name of law and order reinforce inequality. The problem with the current public debate, he says, is that the social and cultural context is not seen and things are not put into a historical perspective.

An intensified debate on this topic is always linked to social change.

"If we see that penal practice or legislation is becoming more severe, there should be an immediate follow-up question - why? What is behind it all," Kekkonen says.