The Public Sense of Justice in Scandinavia

The Public Sense of Justice in Scandinavia.
A study of attitudes towards punishments in six Nordic countries.

A study of attitudes towards punishments has been carried out in the Nordic countries. The design was based on an earlier study in Denmark by Flemming Balvig, University of Copenhagen, in 2006. The results from this study were published in 2006 and the study was financed by the Danish Ministry of Justice and the Lawyers’ Guild (Advokatsamfundet).

The Danish study was repeated in 2009, this time solely financed by the Danish Ministry of justice. Leif Petter Olaussen, University of Oslo, took the initiative to make it possible to make similar studies in Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland in 2009-12, with economic support from the Scandinavian Research Council for Criminology.  The results have been presented in publications both in Scandinavian languages and in English (see list below).

The research on the general sense of justice in Scandinavia has continued. A number of studies, particularly on methodological issues, have been carried out. A study based on the same methodology has been conducted in 2014 by Flemming Balvig in Greenland, paid for by the self-government of Greenland. Further studies outside the Nordic part of Europe have been planned in other countries, e.g. Japan, based on the original methodology.

In the original Danish study and the Nordic studies the attitudes were analyzed by using three different methods on representative samples of the population. In the first study, the general or spontaneous sense of justice was measured by short questions in telephone interviews. The informed sense of justice was examined by presenting vignettes of six cases of serious crimes in a postal survey. The concrete sense of justice studies was studied through focus groups proposing sanctions after having seen a mock trial of a crime case and having discussed the case in the group. The results from the different studies to attitudes towards crimes and punishments were finally compared to the actual punishment according to assessments from panels of judges who also completed the questionnaire.

The first study was based on simple items like “sentences in this country are generally too mild” and “violence should be punished more severely than today”. This study was not carried out in Finland.

The second and third studies were based on a questionnaire with six vignettes half to three quarters of a page. The cases described were:

Spousal abuse:  a man commits violence against his wife in their home.

Heroin smuggling: a person addicted to heroin smuggles 250 grams of heroin into the country.

Kiosk robbery: a man threatens an employee in a kiosk with a knife to give him the money in the safe, 1 800 euro.

Rape: a woman is raped in a hotel by a man whom she meets during a weekend seminar arranged by their employer.

Bank embezzlement: a female bank employee commits aggravated embezzlement in the bank where she is employed.

Assault: a man commits assault against another man outside a night open grill bar.


Respondents in the postal survey and in the focus groups were asked to answer three questions for each of the six cases (seven in Denmark):
–  Which punishment do you think a court would inflict?
–  Which punishment would you yourself inflict?
–  Which punishment do you think that people in general would inflict?

The respondents could choose their answers among 31 pre-coded alternative sanctions, including no sanction, listed at the back of each case description. The tick off-list was (implicitly) partly ordered with more lenient sanctions at the top of the list. Respondents were allowed to answer each question by ticking off one or two sanctions including mediation and economic compensation to the crime victim.

The information about the perpetrator was systematically varied between questionnaires used in the postal survey to be able to explore if and how different aspect of perpetrator’s background would influence punishments suggested by citizens (see variations below). All together there were 48 variants of the basic six cases put together in 8 different questionnaires that were mailed to respondents. In the focus group studies the perpetrator was presented as a native-born man without a previous conviction but with a substance abuse problem in the case of drug smuggling and robbery.

Focus group respondents were obtained in the capitals. A market research institute recruited about 120 participants through telephone interviews, and picked out participants according to specified criteria: equal representation of men and women and of three age groups (18-29, 30-49, 50-74 years). In addition – and most important – the focus group participants’ general or spontaneous opinions about level of punishment should be equal to the opinions found in the nationwide telephone survey. In this respect the focus group participants are a matched sample of adult citizens in the country. The focus group study was not done in Finland.

The focus group participants were assigned to 12 groups, which had one meeting each in the premises of the market research institute. These meetings were monitored by one of the institute’s employees, and each group carried out five activities in sequential order: Participants
– answered the same questionnaire as respondents in the postal survey.
– watched a short (14-25 minutes) mock trial film of court proceeding of one of four of the cases in the questionnaire: heroin smuggling, kiosk robbery, rape or assault.
– answered a questionnaire about sanctions for the accused in the film.
– discussed punishment for the accused in the film for about one hour. The participants were asked to give their reasons for the punishment they would inflict, and their discussions were taped and later transcribed by the market research institute. They were informed that they were not expected to come to an agreement.
– answered a final questionnaire about punishment for the accused in the film.

The design of the studies was basically the same in all the countries. There are, however, also differences concerning e.g. sample-size, non-response, the role of the moderator in the focus group studies, and if the filmed mock trials was presented in the original language (Danish), was dubbed or was presented with sub-titles. These and other differences should be observed when comparing the countries. More detailed information on the project can be found below in English and in national languages for the different countries.

The questionnaire can be used freely. The Scandinavian Research Council for Criminology explores the possibilities of making the data from the different countries available for further analyzes, including comparative research. If the questionnaires and the data are used the following note should be included if the results are published.

“The project has been conducted in Denmark and Greenland by Flemming Balvig ( at the University of Copenhagen, in Finland by Aarne Kinnunen ( at the Ministry of Justice, in Iceland by Helgi Gunnlaugsson ( at the University of Iceland, in Norway by Leif Petter Olaussen ( at the University of Oslo, and in Sweden by Kristina Jerre ( and Henrik Tham ( at Stockholm University.

The project has been financed by the Scandinavian Research Council for Criminology, by the Justice Ministry in Denmark, by the University of Iceland Research Fund, by the National Research Institute of Legal Policy in Finland, by the Justice and Police Ministry in Norway, by the selv-government in Greenland and by the Swedish Research Council.

Materials and information in English

The project and the results of the project are described in English in a number of publications in the list below: Jerre 2013 (four publications), Olaussen 2014, and Balvig et al. 2015. An English version of the questionnaire used in the postal survey and the focus group study can be found below. The letter of introduction to the survey has been taken from one of the countries as an example but will vary somewhat between the countries. The variations used in presenting the perpetrator in the postal survey questionnaire can be found below. The variations presented here have also been taken from one of the countries but only differ in names compared to the other countries.

The questionnaire in English: Scandsenseofjustice (questionnaire English).

The variations in English: Scandsenseofjustice (variations English).


The Nordic countries
The study design is presented in detail in Danish for the studies carried out in Denmark and Greenland. They can also be read as an introduction to the studies in the other countries. However, country differences as mentioned above should be noticed in the national reports. For questions, please contact the researcher in respective countries. The questionnaires present only one variation each and vary between the countries. The variations used in all the countries can be seen in the Swedish version – only names and places are different depending on country.


The study design in Danish: Scandsenseofjustice (study design DK)



The questionnaire in Finnish: Scandsenseofjustice (study design FI)



The questionnaire in Icelandic: Scandsenseofjustice (questionnaire IC)



Publications describing the Norwegian part of the study are: Olaussen 2013 and 2014.

The questionnaire in Norwegian: Scandsenseofjustice (questionnaire NO)



Publications describing the Swedish part of the study are: Jerre and Tham 2010, and Jerre 2013 (four publications).

The questionnaire in Swedish: Scandsenseofjustice (questionnaire SE)

The variations in Swedish: Scandsenseofjustice (variations SE)



The study design in Danish for Greenland: Scandsenseofjustice (study design GL)



Augustsson J (2011) Straffets syfte – en empirisk undersökning. Examensarbete i kriminologi. Stockholm: Kriminologiska institutionen, Stockholms universitet.!/menu/standard/file/2011c_Josefine_Augustsson.pdf.

Balvig F (2006) Danskernes syn på straf. Advokatsamfundet.

Balvig F (2010) Danskernes retsfølelse og retsfornuft – et forspil. Copenhagen: University of
Copenhagen, Faculty of Law.

Balvig, F (2010).  Danskernes retsfornuft. Advokaten, 89, 22–23.

Balvig, F (2014). Folkets domstol. I Krunke, H. et al. (red.): Rettens magt – Magtens ret.
Festskrift til Henning Koch
. København: Jurist- og Økonomforbundets Forlag, 13–24.

Balvig, F (2015). Retsfølelse og retsfornuft – i Grønland. Nordisk Tidsskrift for Kriminalvidenskab
(in  the process of publishing).

Balvig, F and Holmberg, L. (2014).  Med straf skal stemmer bygges. I Balvig, F. &
Holmberg, L.: Flamingoeffekten. Sociale overdrivelser og social pejling. København: Jurist-
og Økonomforbundets Forlag, 225–254.

Balvig F, Gunnlaugsson H, Jerre K, Olaussen LP and Tham H (2010) Den nordiske retsbevidsthedsundersøgelse. Nordisk Tidsskrift for Kriminalvidenskab 97(3): 232–250.

Balvig F, Gunnlaugsson H and Tham H (2011) Ikke kun strenghed – replik om de nordiske retsbevidsthedsundersøgelser. Nordisk Tidsskrift for Kriminalvidenskab 98(3): 228–238.

Balvig F, Gunnlaugsson H, Jerre K, Kinnunen A and Tham, H (2015) The public sense of justice in Scandinavia: A study of attitudes towards punishments. European Journal of Criminology 12: 1–20.

Bäckman K (2010) Gymnasieelevers kunskap om och attityder till straff om ekonomisk brottslighet. Examensarbete i kriminologi. Stockholm: Kriminologiska institutionen, Stockholms universitet.!/2010c_Karin_Backman.pdf.

Gottberg D (2010) Straff i proportion till den tilltalades ungdom? Examensarbete i kriminologi. Stockholm: Kriminologiska institutionen, Stockholms universitet.!/2010c_Daniel_Gottberg.pdf.

Gunnlaugsson H (2010) Eru dómstólar mildari en almenningur. Tímarit lögfræðinga 60(3): 267–276.

Gunnlaugsson, H (2013). Har gerningspersonens køn eller nationalitet indflydelse på islændinges holdning til straf? Nordisk Samarbeidsråd for Kriminologi, Forsknings Seminar Rapport no. 55, i Svartå, Finland 6. maj 2013: 129-139.

Gunnlaugsson, H (2012). Er offentligheden i Island strengere end domstolene i sager  vedrörende seksual brott imod börn og ekonomiske brott? Nordisk Samarbeidsråd for Kriminologi, ForskningsSeminar Rapport no 54, på Selfoss, Island 6. maj 2012: 17-27.

Gunnlaugsson, H (2015). Vil den islandske befolkning have strengere straffe end dommerne for ökonomisk kriminalitet og seksuelle forbrydelser mod börn? I Kriminalistiske pejlinger:
Festskrift til Flemming Balvig
. B Kyvsgaard, J Vestergaard, L Holmberg & Th Elholm (red.), s. 119-130. Köbenhavn: Jurist- og Ökonomforbundets Forlag.

Gunnlaugsson, H (2015). Are the criminal courts more lenient than the public? A case study from Iceland. I H Kury (red.) Punitivity and Punishment – Results from different countries, vol. 10, s.  99-114. Bochum: University Press Brockmeyer.

Hermansson K (2009) Synen på straff. En metodstudie baserad på vinjetter. Examensarbete i kriminologi. Stockholm: Kriminologiska institutionen, Stockholms universitet.!/2009m1_Klara_Hermansson.pdf.

Jerre K (2013) The Public’s Sense of Justice in Sweden – A Smorgasbord of Opinions. PhD dissertation in Criminology. Stockholm: Stockholm University, Department of Criminology.

Jerre K (2013) Public opion on appropriate sentences – which public, which opinion? European Journal of Criminal Policy and Research 19(1): 31–45.

Jerre K (2013) Contradictory expectations on society’s reaction to crime. A qualitative study of how people view the objectives of society’s reaction to crime and how these objectives can be fulfilled. Journal of Scandinavian Studies in Criminology and Crime Prevention 14(2): 98–114.

Jerre, K (2013) More sanctions – less prison? A research note on the severity of sanctions proposed by survey participants and how it is affected by the option to combine a prison term with other sanctions. European Journal of Criminal Policy and Research 20(1): 121–136.

Jerre K ((2016) ska strängare straff dömas ut vid återfall? Nordisk Tidsskrift for Kriminalvidenskab 103(1): 78–95.

Jerre K and Tham H (2010) Svenskarnas syn på straff. Stockholm: Stockholm University, Department of Criminology.

Kinell E (2010) Att döma av erfarenhet. En kvantitativ pilotstudie av kriminalitet och inställning till straffnivå bland gymnasieungdomar. Stockholm: Kriminologiska institutionen, Stockholms universitet.!/2010c

Olaussen LP (2011) De nordiske rettsbevissthetsundersøkelsene – noen metodekritiske betraktinger. Nordisk Tidsskrift for Kriminalvidenskab 98(3): 209–227.

Olaussen LP (2011b) Tilsvar til replikk om rettbevissthetsundersøkelsene. Nordisk Tidsskrift for kriminalvidenskab, 98(3): 239–244.

Olaussen LP (2013) Hva synes folk om straffenivået? En empirisk undersøkelse. Oslo: Novus forlag.

Olaussen LP (2014) Concordance between Actual Level of Punishmnet and Punishmnets suggested by Lay People – but with less use of Imprisonment. Bergen Journal of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, 2(1): 69–99.

Tham H (2011) Nej, svenskarna vill inte ha hårdare straff. Tvärsnitt 3-4: 12–16.