Throw away the key!

They say the people have a sense of justice. But when the people were asked about what they thought would be appropriate punishments, a researcher was taken aback. There is one type of crime that receives especially harsh sentences in Finland.



I:Illustration: Erkki Toukolehto

Kuvitus: Erkki Toukolehto.

In the summer of 2015, crime and punishment was a big issue across the board in Finland.

The Helsinki District Court had handed down a sentence in June on a rape that had been committed in Tapanila. The perpetrators received conditional prison sentences, because the court found the rape to have been ”typical in nature”. (Later the court sentenced the older of the two perpetrators to two years and four months of unconditional imprisonment for aggravated rape).

The case lit a fire under the Justice Minister at the time, the Finns Party’s Jari Lindström (now with the Blue Reform group). Right after the sentencings he started up an initative whose goal was to survey the sense of justice among Finns. After all, the new government program stated that ”penalties in Finland correspond to the general sense of justice”.

The survey commissioned by Lindström was completed in summer 2017. People’s justice not found, ran a headline in the web publication Uusi Suomi. Oddly enough, the populace didn’t actually possess the shared lynching mentality that internet forums may have lead people to believe existed. Respondents would have passed down harsher sentences on violent and sxual crimes than professional judges, but opinions were still scattered.

Reports on the findings did not gain much traction. Lindström himself had some time previously come down with work-related exhaustion, and the Minister of Justice and Empoyment portfolio was handed to Antti Häkkänen of the National Coalition Party. According to him, public discussion at the time of the drafting of the government program had implied a united sense of fair punishments for various crimes.

”However, the survey shows us that the population’s ideas of just penalty policy vary greatly,” Häkkänen says in an email to Ylioppilaslehti.


Lindström’s initiative was not short on ambition. When investigating a sense of justice, the work might amount to attempts to uncover something that doesn’t necessarily exist.

The most pointed of legal minds already stated in summer 2015 that Lindström was missing the point. Professor emeritus Jyrki Virolainen wrote in his blog that independent courts dole out their sense of just deserts every day. A minister, he said, had no place interfering with the system.

Even the researcher who conducted the survey says he doubts the possibility of studying any generalized sense of justice. The concept is more populist than it is scientific, says Juha Kääriäinen, an analyst for the Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy (Krimo) at the University of Helsinki.

And yet he had to study the phenomenon under investigation somehow. Kääriäinen’s probe asked 1,251 regular citizens and 192 court judges about their takes on seven different types of crime, including aggravated assault, rape, and aggravated drunk driving.

The respondents were given backgrounds to fictitious crimes to use as a base for their answers. Even those, Kääriäinen points out, were inevitably less detailed than real judges use in the course of their duties.

Kääriäinen says that the clearest message that surfaced was that the people would resort to conditional sentences less frequently than real arbiters. The hoi polloi would also demand more community sanctions of different kinds than just community service (in the form of obligatory non-profit work) and monitoring sentences (such as home arrest).

Kääriäinen found that in certain types of crime the respondents’ demands for punishment were often at variance in the extreme.

”A general punitive attitude did not explain the preferences,” he says.

A punitive attitude in this case means a positive outlook on hardening penalties.

”Although the people often are punitive, people themselves are very supportive of preventative measures and see that criminal politics is most effective when it tries to keep crimes from occurring.”


Even if a shared sense of legal right and wrong were to exist, Kääriäinen thinks it would not be well-grounded. Laypeople are not well versed in the basics of crime and punishment. Many even commit to information available to and through the media, which tends to highlight the most brutal or heinous of criminal acts.

”Faced with a choice to either mitigate or harshen any given penalty, people tend towards making the punishments more severe, because they think that crime is what it looks like in TV series,” Kääriäinen says.

Hard stats paint a very different picture to the one dramatized on television. For instance, the homicide rate has gone down systematically in Finland since the early 90s, with less than one hundred committed per year. The vast majority of Finnish crimes are limited to traffic infractions, larcony, theft, petty damages, fraud, narcotics offenses, and assault.

The flimsy nature of the idea of a nation’s sense of justice is no obstacle for politicians, who love bringing it up in their speeches to pander to would-be voters. When Lindström commissioned the justice survey, he sent the message that he would rather listen to the people than to legal professionals. He was praised in the comments sections of news articles for being a man of the people.

Next on stage was Blue Reform, a gang of Finns Party malcontents who broke from the dipping populist party and soon were on their way to becoming a political force themselves. The blues said in September that they wanted a true lifetime prison sentence in Finland; that is, the kind where instead of eventually being pardoned, the criminal would spend the rest of the minutes of his or her life in a cell. In their briefing they refused to say which crimes they felt such a punishment would fit. No surprise, group chair Simon Elo said that this full-on form of indefinite imprisonment merely reflected the people’s – now debunked – sense of justice.


Kuvitus: Erkki Toukolehto.


A few years ago a police patrol came to see Irma, a woman living in a small town in Southern Finland.

Irma had spent the previous night at a rock festival with her son. It was a nice night. Irma had introduced her son to some of her friends, and they made plans to visit the same festival the next day.

But the next day came, and no one was able to reach Irma’s son. His phone was off, and some terrible rumors started circulating about the night before. Irma, too, heard through Facebook that some young men had been arrested on suspicion of manslaughter. One of her son’s friends told her that her son was among those arrested.

But the police at Irma’s door had even more devastating news. Her son had passed away violently.

Five months later in court one of the two suspects was convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to conditional imprisonment. This year, his sentence was overturned in a Court of Appeal and commuted to 50 daily penalties for assault, amounting to a fine. The other suspect was acquitted altogether.

The lawyers in the case showed that Irma’s son had invaded the terrace of one of the suspects’ homes. The son had then been strangled and struck in the neck with a knife. It was also shown that there were no other people present at the time except the three men.

One of the two suspects had used the knife; but which one? The evidence was inconclusive.

Irma says she has always been a fair person, and has always treated people equally. Crime, however, was too much for her. Rape, for instance, was something she could not stand. Now the worst possible crime had turned her life upside down, and the perpetrator wasn’t even convicted.

”I feel like grabbing the whole judicial system and shouting, What the fuck are you thinking! My child has been taken from me!”


In a constitutional state, a person is innocent in the eyes of the law until proven guilty. That’s why it is more serious in a judiciary sense to convict an innocent person than it is to not convict a guilty one.

This is not something Irma says she has real trouble understanding. She considers both of the men initially charged to be guilty for the course of events, even if just one of them actually dealth the killing blow.

”One is guilty, and the other is partly guilty. Both of them should be convicted.”

Irma says she believes she knows which of the men killed her son.

”If I had my way, I’d strangle him with all my might until he was dead. But I don’t know if I could do it. I’ve never favored violence.”

Irma has also published the names of both suspects on social media, where her posts on the subject have been frank. She says she doesn’t care about the consequences and would have been prepared to use her real name for this article, too. Her legal counsel would not let that happen, however, as Irma has appealed the conviction in the Supreme Court.

Following her son’s death, Irma has also signed a petition demanding harsher punishments for criminals. In a phone interview she says wants courts to come down harder on sex crimes and drink-driving, too – both of which may in themselves amount to homicide.
Irma says she would see the main suspect in her son’s death go to prison for life, adding that the it is the victim’s next of kin who will be stuck with the bill if the perpetrator is not found.

”He has taken a life, so the punishment should also be life,” she says. ”And there will be compensation. Money will not bring my son back, but I’m now in debt because my own child has been killed.”


It is in cases like Irma’s that the issue of a sense of justice and its implementation should be addressed. When a serious crime devastates one’s own life and the offender is either not caught or not convicted, ones trust in the system may well falter.

The way victims react to perpetrators and the punishments they receive is personal and very difficult to generalize, says executive director Leena-Kaisa Åberg from aid group Victim Support Finland.

”Usually the most important thing is that society takes a stand on who is responsible. That is, that a conviction is made, and the suspect is deemed guilty.”

In other words, the severity of the punishment may not be as important as getting a conviction in the first place. However, based on the experiences of professionals at Victim Support Finland, the harshness of the repercussions become crucial in cases of homicide and sex crimes. The thinking can be that in more serious cases the perpetrator is feared to be likely to repeat their atrocity, which is why victims and relations may feel relieved to know that an offender will sit behind bars for as long as possible.

The victim’s experience of how justice is carried out is also affected by how they themselves are traeted during the criminal procedure, the investigation, and the trial.

Irma says she is satisfied with the mental support she has received after her son’s death. A support organisation for homicide victims’ relatives has assigned her a personal aid worker. Nonetheless, she still says she feels bitter, heartbroken, and powerless.

”I’ve always believe that justice always prevails, but I don’t believe that anymore.”

If anyone can explain why crimes in Finland receive the kinds of punishments they do today, it’s Jukka Kekkonen, professor of legal history and Roman justice at the University of Helsinki.

Kekkonen says the main question is of context. Social, political, and economic power structures all affect the justice system and the rule of law.

”This is an issue of both very fast political shifts as well as historical continuity,” Kekkonen says.

The most salient recent historical moments in terms of Finnish criminal politics have been the wars that ravaged the country over the course of about a century. Especially since the civil war of 1918, penalties in Finland have gotten harsher, well beyond average Nordic levels. Kekkonen calls it a heavy load that Finnish people carried all the way into the 1960s and 70s.

After World War II, Finland became a democracy and the political left got their shoe in the door of national decision-making. Punishments began to get systematically more moderate.

”Democracy always has a way of making punishments lighter, just as moving away from democracy makes them more ruthless,” Kekkonen encapsulates.

He says that historically it has been the elite who has been in favor of tougher punishments, such as the death penalty. Before the birth of the constitutional state citizens were not equal in the eyes of the law. Because the worse-off common folk committed more crimes and their judicial security was so much worse, it made sense for them to call for milder repercussions for their offenses.

”Now the situation is more complicated, because the class and group dynamics are so different.”

These days one of the main things that seems to lead to more moderate punishments is a high level of education, Kekkonen says. Because the populace is becoming more and more highly educated, our so-called sense of justice cannot abide the death penalty.

The best way to calculate the severity of a nation’s criminal politics, however, is the number of people it incarcerates.


In the 1960s, Finland’s prisons were four times as full as those of the other Nordic countries. In the mid-60s some 150 people per 100,000 inhabitants was in prison, about three times as many as in Sweden and Norway. Crimes against property were dealt with particularly unforgivingly. After that the social atmosphere opened up, and Finland started to conduct Nordic cooperation when it came to criminal (and other aspects of) politics.

The welfare state project started off with the understanding that apple thieves shouldn’t be thrown in jail, because it’s expensive and does almost nothing to prevent crime. By the early 1990s the number of inmates in Finland, Sweden, and Norway leveled out to about 50 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants in each country.

Decreasing the number of prison sentences certainly didn’t lead to an uptick in crime, even though that might seem likely. The crime rate grew at an identical rate in all the Nordic countries, although only in Finland the number of inmates clearly declined.

Krimo chief Tapio Lappi-Seppälä explains that crime rose from the 1960s through to the 90s, but mainly because the baby boomers reached their teens and early adulthood in that time, society prospered, and the economic structure was transfigured. Supermarkets appeared on every street corners and attracted petty thieves. At the same time, a rise in alcohol consumption increased violence, property crimes, and drunk driving.

Imprisonment does prevent crime in the sense that a person serving their sentence cannot easily commit serious crimes. The fact still remains that alternative measures such as community service nad substance abuse rehabilitation have a higher chance of preventing recidivism.

”No one should be thrown in prison in the hopes of helping that person’s future development,” Lappi-Seppälä says.

International studies show that criminal politics is the most effective in states such as the Nordics, where welfare and income gaps are relatively narrow. Alternative methods are in common use. The other famous extreme is the United States, where private prisons thrive and a vast proportion of the population is locked up, with figures only increasing since the 1970s.

Lappi-Seppälä says that US criminal customs are grossly overpoliticized, and even used to drum up support in presidential campaigns. The Nordic variety of populism is far more restrained, even if politicos do pander to the public’s supposed thirst for hard justice.

”The Nordic discourse is – at least for now – focused more on arguing the issues, and scoring political points is less widespread.”



There is another profession apart from politicians that is able to affect the development of sentencing: judges.

Finnish law recognizes more than 400 criminal offenses. Every crime has a set penalty scale that courts use to pass down sentences on said crimes.

For instance, an animal welfare infringement can only result in a fine. Trafficking in human beings brings a minimum sentence of four months, and a maximum term of six years imprisonment. A murder conviction always means a lifetime prison sentence.

Judges have very broad discretionary power when it comes to punishing the guilty, according to criminal process professor Matti Tolvanen from the University of Eastern Finland.

”In actuality though, judges use the lower fourth or fifth of the punitive scale.”

In other words, most convictions utilize a punishment closer to the minimum than to the maximum extent of the law. Tolvanen says there is no particular basis for this practice, other than that it is a long-standing tradition that also has comparative precedent in international studies.

However, there is one type of crime that many legal professionals say carries exceptionally vehement punishments: drug offenses.

In Finland, drug convictions have long been based on a schematic, drawn up by the Supreme Court, where the conviction is based largely on how many kilograms of whichever illegal narcotic the accused has distributed. As the amount of narcotics coming into the country has increased over the years, so have the convictions related to them risen up towards the very maximum punishments.

A change is now underway. Daily Helsingin Sanomat wrote in June of a precedent where the Supreme Court lowered an Estonian courier’s sentence by several years; in this way the court wanted to send the message to the lower courts that instead of capitulating to the kilogram scale, the big picture of the crime in question should be taken into consideration. The example cuts close to that oft-cited sense of justice: it seems wrong for minor players to serve many years longer in prison than the higher-ups in the leagues and cartels.

On the minimum-maximum scale, sentences for sexual offenses have risen in recent years.

”They haven’t been the harshest forms possible, but well above the middle ground,” Tolvanen says.

The professor says he believes this is a good thing, and that he thinks many citizens, too, agree that sex crimes could or should carry tougher punitive consequences.

”Year on year we’re talking about a couple dozen cases, so it wouldn’t even raise the number of incarcerated by that much.”


Sometimes it really seems, through the public lens, that the people do have a sense of right and wrong – and that it is being put to the test. This autumn the release of Virpi Butt, a woman serving a life sentence for murder and dismemberment since 2004, has caused a stir especially because the Criminal Sanctions Agency was against the call due to a high risk of recidivism.

In Butt’s case the court ruled that the prisoner’s desire and aspiration for returning to civilian life have weighed more than a psychiatrist’s statement deeming her to be dangerous.

Not many comments defending Butt’s release have been seen in the public eye. Professor Tolvanen, for one, has stated that he believes that not all convicts should even have the opportunity to walk free ever again. Tolvanen still sees Butt’s coming exemption as a solitary case with no effect on the big picture governing the believability of the justice system in the eyes of the people.

”If the guideline changes so that more emphasis is placed on the rights of the convict at the expense of people’s safety, that could be problematic.”

Tolvanen says he thinks tightening or alleviating punishments should, in any case, only happen after diverse discussion and end in an acceptable compromise. Call votes and rushed decisions are not an option.

”That could get ugly fast.”

Lappi-Seppälä from Krimo says he is not worried that any sudden shifts are in store for Finnish criminal policy. He estimates that there is still a strong consensus for the defense of the pillars of the welfare state. It prevents ups and downs in justice and seeking easy political solutions.

”They often promise more than can be delivered or attained.”


Minister Lindström did not commission the justice sense survey for nothing.

The Ministry of Justice has begun drafting a memo with the intent of assessing the repercussions of heinous crimes such as violent assaults and pedophilia. The report, to be out by the end of the year, also looks at the aforementioned punitive scale, minister Häkkänen says. He says he believes that Lindström’s survey contains useful information for the basis of a legal policy debate, and that it will also be used as background materal for the coming memo.

Häkkänen himself says he considers crimes relating to physical immunity extremely serious.

”When it comes to violent crime, we have to find effective precision measures for the most serious cases,” he writes in a reply sent on by the ministry.

Before evaluating the current situation, Häkkänen says it is too early to say which bits of legislation may see an overhaul.

Kääriäinen, the man behind the justice survey, says he will conduct follow-up research into the reasons behind respondents’ attitudes. He wants to go even deeper into why people hold to certain punitive views.

Kääriäinen mentions international studies where the explanatory stories of the fictions used for the assessment have had details such as the perpetrator’s ethnic background changed. If a person’s ethnicity affects the harshness of the punishment to be doled out, an explaining factor could simply be xenophobia, not some idealistic ”general sense of justice”. Additionally, the demanded penalties may be affected by attitudes towards gender equality or social equity more generally.

One interesting finding, says Kääriäinen, is that younger respondents were prepared to give harder punishments for sex crimes than the older people surveyed. This is likely to be explained by a generational shift in sexual attitudes and the strengthening of women’s rights.

As society and its mindsets develop, so perhaps will the much sought-after ”sense of justice”.

”The older generation may think that victims of rape have some responsibility in the crime committed.”


Irma’s name has been changed for this article.

Translated by Kasper Salonen.