Remand imprisonment in the Nordic penal context: Use, development and consequences

By Emilí Lönnqvist

Emeli L]onnqvist. Foto: Maud Hol
Emeli Lönnqvist. Foto: Maud Hol

The 2023 NSfK research seminar with the theme “The future of punishment” caught my attention immediately. I viewed it as an important opportunity to share some preliminary findings from my dissertation and the use of remand imprisonment in the Nordic countries. Remand imprisonment, commonly referred to as pre-trial detention, is a procedural measure used either to protect the criminal justice process from obstruction or prevent suspects from offending during ongoing investigations. It is a deprivation of liberty that has generally been overlooked in criminological and penological research. In fact, one of the reasons for omitting remand in these fields lies precisely in its procedural rather than punitive function – it is not punishment. Why, then, was I so eager to participate at a research seminar with punishment as its central theme?

The relevance of remand imprisonment in penology has been discussed previously, perhaps most notably in the Nordic context by Peter Scharff Smith in the book Scandinavian Penal History, Culture and Prison Practice (published in 2017, Palgrave Macmillan London). Scharff Smith provides two powerful arguments. Remand imprisonment should be considered in discussions of punishment because it is experienced as punishment. Being on remand means being subjected to the general “pains” associated with imprisonment – including losses of autonomy, relationships, work and housing. It is also associated with stress, anxiety and uncertainty, where the high suicide rates among remand prisoners is a gruesome confirmation of its potential detrimental effects. Second, Scharff Smith argues that remand should be considered in discussions of punishment because the time spent on remand is deducted from subsequent punishments. In other words, even though remand is not intended as punishment, it often ends up being one.

According to statistics, the average length of detention in the Nordic countries has dramatically increased in the past decades. Between 1983 and 2020, during which data is available in all countries, the increases have varied between roughly 70 percent (Finland) and 170 percent (Sweden). These dramatic increases do not only have implications for the individuals held on remand. They also have practical as well as conceptual implications for the nature of punishment. This is particularly the case in contexts where prison sentences are generally short – which arguably still applies in the Nordic context despite recent punitive reforms in Sweden and Denmark. In practice, longer terms of detention mean that larger parts of Nordic punishments are served in conditions without meaningful activities, work, rehabilitative programs and even daily human interaction. These developments also mean that those who are not sentenced to custodial sanctions – or not sentenced at all – are deprived of their liberty for longer periods of time, which raises important questions related to fundamental justice principles and human rights. As such, the increasing lengths of detention serves as another strong argument for why remand is criminologically and penologically relevant, and that our understanding of Nordic punishment will remain incomplete until we recognize the central role of remand in shaping these practices.

Recent publication

Lönnqvist, Emelí (2023). Prisoners of process: The development of remand prisoner rates in the Nordic countries. Nordic Journal of Criminology, 24(2), 1–19.

Emelí Lönnqvist is a PhD fellow at the Department of Criminology, Stockholm University. Her research targets the Swedish remand prison institution with a particular focus on the treatment and rights of remand prisoners. Lönnqvist is also the NSfK’s contact secretary for Sweden.