Denmark Criminal Justice System

Denmark Criminal Justice System

This entry gives a general account of the overall criminal system and outline the political and legal structure and the history of the Denmark criminal justice system to help account for the unique aspects that may help to bind the many parts of this criminal justice system together, and to show the extent to how this criminal justice system plays in the overall social control of Denmark. The section on crime definitions and statistic provides some basis of “output” of the criminal justice bureaucracies of the country.


1. Political System.

Information on Denmark available here.

2. Legal System.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the criminal
justice system developed into an adversarial
system. According to the Administration of
Justice Act from 1916, both the pre-trial
proceedings and the trial itself follow this
system. This process also includes the
questioning of witnesses and the accused by the
presiding judge. It follows from the principle of
material truth that the judge is obliged to
elucidate all vague points of the case.
The criminal justice system is administered
by the Ministry of Justice, the Minister of
Justice being head of office regarding Denmark as
well as Greenland. The police, the courts when
seen as an administrative body, and the
correctional system all stand under the immediate
authority of the Minister of Justice.

3. History of the Criminal Justice System.

In the year 1660, Denmark was made an
absolute monarchy and in 1683 a new set of laws,
Christian den Femtes Danske Lov, was issued.
These statutes were much influenced by municipal
law. In the following centuries, with these laws
becoming increasingly obsolete, the Supreme Court
played a prominent role in interpreting and
completing statutory law.
In 1848 democracy was introduced in the
kingdom of Denmark and in 1866 a modern criminal
code was issued. The first clause of the general
part stated the principle of legality which is
nulla poena sine lege. The criminal code of
today, Straffeloven, af 15. April 1930 entered
into force in 1933.
In 1953 the large Arctic island of Greenland
which had been colonized by Denmark was made part
of the country. In the year 1954, a criminal code
especially for Greenland was issued in which
sanctions were based on the old traditions of the
people. Thus, Greenland’s criminal justice system
is solely offender treatment oriented, although
this criminal policy causes increasing
difficulties in a modern society. Figures and
information about Greenland’s criminal justice are
not included in the following.


1. Classification of Crimes.

* Legal classification. Criminal offenses are
defined either in the special part of the Criminal
Code or in separate statutes. The general
conditions for imposing criminal penalties are
found in the general part of the Criminal Code
which also apply to separate statutes. The
sanctions described in the general part of the
Criminal Code are the same whether the criminal
offense consists of a violation of the Criminal
Code or of separate statutes.
The substantive Danish criminal law is
monistic, meaning that violations of the law never
have been divided into categories like
felony/misdemeanor, crime/delicts or the like. It
does not mean, however, that major offenses are
treated in the same manner as petty offenses in
all respects.

* Age of criminal responsibility. The age of
criminal responsibility is 15 years.

* Drug offenses. According to the Criminal Code
the mere possession of narcotic drugs is
criminalized. However, the law is not enforced
regarding possession of very small amounts meant
for the drug addict’s own consumption. Possession
and selling is penalized in a special law on drugs
containing the possibility of imprisonment for a
period of up to two years. Serious cases of
trafficking of drugs are punished with
imprisonment within a range of one month to ten
years according to the Criminal Code.

2. Crime Statistics.

The definition of homicide is intentional
killing. Burglary is included in the figures on
theft in general. Attempts are included unless
otherwise specified. Persons convicted in 1992
and rate of conviction over 15 years.

Table 1.
Offense Convictions Convictions per
in 1992 100,000 inhabitants
> 15 years
Homicide 48 Not Available
homicide 35 Not Available
Theft 30,079 700
Robbery 832 19
Rape 191 4
of drugs 324 8

The overall percentage of the reported crime that
was cleared amounted to 21.8% in 1992. The
figures on reported crime for 1992 and the rate of
reporting over 15 years are in Table 2.

Table 2.
Offense Reported Reported crime per
offenses 100,000 inhabitants
in 1992 > 15 years
Homicide 237 6
Theft 295,039 6,873
Robbery 2,328 54
Rape 556 13
of drugs 662 15

* Crime regions. Being a homogeneous country
Denmark has no special crime regions. The
distribution of crime in rural and urban districts
mirrors the relative residency distribution of the
population and is shown in Table 3.

Table 3.
In % of total Rural Cities and towns
convictions areas > 10,000 inhab.
Homicide 24% 76%
Theft 24% 76%
Robbery 20% 80%
Rape 35% 65%
of drugs 16% 84%
Sources: “Yearbook of Nordic Statistics 1993” and
“Kriminalstatistik 1992” which contains
statistical information gathered from the police,
judicial authorities etc. by the central
statistical office of Denmark.


1. Groups Most Victimized by Crime.

A survey has shown that about 25% of the
population was victimized in 1986 by criminal acts
such as theft, vandalism and violence. Of these,
14% had experienced theft, 12% vandalism and 6%
violence. More men than women were victimized.
The difference between age groups was apparent.
More than one third of young people between 16- 24
years were victimized against less than one eighth
of old people over 65 years of age. The greatest
risk of experiencing criminality was found among
young men in urban areas.

2. Victims’ Assistance Agencies.

Private crisis centers for victims of
violence and rape are found in all major towns.
According to the Law of Compensation to Victims of
Violent Acts the victim has the right to receive
compensation from the state and a scale for paying
damages has been established.

3. Role of Victim in Prosecution and Sentencing.

The victim has no right to be a party to the
proceedings under the penal aspects of the case.
They are notified of the action taken by the
prosecution. In a very limited number of cases
the victim is permitted to prosecute, i.e.
offenses against personal honor and special cases
where the public prosecutor has decided not to
pursue the matter. The victim may be called as a
witness under the normal rules regarding

4. Victims’ Rights Legislation.

The victim has the right to present civil
claims under the criminal process. Victims of
certain violent crimes such as sexual assault may
receive legal assistance during the criminal
proceedings. A sexual assault victim is also
entitled to request that the courtroom be cleared
while he or she is giving evidence.


1. Administration.

The state police is a department of the
Ministry of Justice. There is no longer a
municipal police and the military police only has
authority over soldiers according to the Military
Criminal Code. Denmark is divided into 54 police
districts (excluding the Faeroe Islands and
Greenland), each headed by a local chief of
police. The National Commissioner reports to the
Minister of Justice. For administrative purposes
the police are subdivided into plain-clothes
criminal investigators, uniformed patrolmen,
traffic police officers, immigration police, and
other categories.

2. Resources.

* Expenditures. In the year 1993 the expenditure
grant totaled DKK 4.4 billion, of which employee
costs accounted for 77%.

* Number of police. At the end of 1993 the number
of police personnel was 10,247, of which 8,123
served in the uniform branch. Legal staff totaled
369 and the number of civilian clerical staff was
2,093. The ethnic origin and gender distribution
of the police force has not been reported.

3. Technology.

* Availability of police automobiles. In 1993 the
number of service vehicles was 2,245, each running
about 28,000 km per year. The number of police
turn-outs amounted to 471,076.

* Electronic equipment. The police are equipped
with radio communication, and computers.
Recently, data terminals have been installed in
police cars in order to facilitate access to
offender records on turn-outs.

* Weapons. The police force is armed with
defensive weapons like tear gas. Watercannons are
not used. The police use 7.65 caliber pistols.
Battle uniforms consist of helmets, visors and
plastic shields. Bulletproof vests are only used
in case of threats of gunfire and the like.

4. Training and Qualifications.

New recruits are required to be in good
physical condition, good personal and economic
condition, and should have achieved good grades in
school. New recruits are usually required to be
between 21 and 29 years of age, of Danish
citizenship and without any convictions.
The basic training of police personnel takes
3 years. The training comprises both school
education and training of a more practical nature.
School education, which consists of 2 courses of 8
months each, takes place at the Police Academy in
Copenhagen. The rest of the training time is
spent on the job. The Police Academy also
presents special courses and leadership courses.
All chiefs of police hold a master’s degree in law
from a university.

5. Discretion.

* Use of force. A policeman on duty is armed with
a pistol and a baton. According to the rules
issued by the National Commissioner the pistol and
baton may be used when considered necessary,
mainly to avert damage to a person, or to arrest
dangerous criminals. Firearms may also be used to
avert dangerous attacks on state institutions and
to disperse an unlawful assembly which is
considered to intend a dangerous attack of such
kind. The use of firearms and police batons must
be reported to the National Commissioner in
writing. In the year 1993, 245 reports concerning
the use of and threats of using firearms were
filed. There were 359 reports concerning the use
of police batons.

* Stop/apprehend a suspect. Coercive measures
must be based on law and they must respect the
principle of proportionality, and they may not
violate fundamental rights. According to the
Administration of Justice Act the police may
apprehend a person in order to establish his or
her identity. In order to take a person suspected
of criminal acts into custody, the suspicion must
be strong and concern fairly serious offense.

* Decision to arrest. Arrests are made by the
police on their own discretion. According to the
Constitution, arrests for a period of more than 24
hours have to be decided by the court. The
maximum period of a prolonged arrest is 72 hours.
When the grounds for detention no longer exist the
person must be released and the time of the
release be reported. Detention on remand can only
be decided by a court. A person who is suspected
of a criminal act will in many cases be released
after questioning in the police station, even if
the person is formally charged with a crime.

* Search and seizure. Suspects and their homes or
any other place where relevant objects or wanted
persons are presumably to be found may be
searched. The conditions for this measure depend
on whether it is a public place or a private home,
whether it is necessary to act with short notice,
or whether the person consents to the search. Two
independent witnesses will be summoned to the
search unless the suspect waives his rights.
Compensation may be awarded for the infamy caused
by an improper search. Objects of proof or loot
may be seized wherever they are found.

* Confessions. Suspects are not obligated to
testify. According to the Administration of
Justice Act the police may under no circumstances
put pressure on the suspect or use any kind of
force in order to make him or her speak. On the
other hand, the accused must submit to an
examination of his body if the police wish to look
for traces of a fight or conduct blood analysis.
The accused may also be ordered by the court to
undergo a psychiatric examination, possibly in a
mental hospital.

6. Accountability.

According to the Administration of Justice
Act complaints over police behavior are dealt with
by a lokalnaevn or local committee. In such cases
the committee consists of the chief of police, two
police staff members, members pointed out by the
municipality and a representative for the defense
lawyer’s association. The local committee decides
whether to investigate the matter. The
investigation itself may be carried out by the
public prosecutor or by the city court. The
committee may refuse to investigate if the
complaint is considered unfounded or if the case
is considered to have been adequately seen into.


1. Rights of the Accused.

* Rights of the accused at trial. The accused is
to be regarded as an active subject with the
benefit of the presumption of innocence. He has
the right to be heard, to present evidence, to put
questions to witnesses, and to take remedies. He
is also to some extent an object of investigatory
measures such as finger-printing and blood tests
for alcohol. He may also have to submit to
coercive measures such as arrest and search of his
The accused is under no obligation actively
to contribute to the prosecution and neither
pressure nor cunning may be applied in view of
obtaining statements. Devices such as the
lie-detector or methods like narco-analysis or
hypnosis are inadmissible.

* Assistance to the accused. Everyone accused has
the right to legal assistance by counsel of his
own choice. Defense counsel is mandatory in all
criminal cases of a more serious nature,
regardless of the financial situation of the
accused. The defense counselor is appointed
either at the request of the accused or, more
often, chosen by the court from a body of
qualified lawyers previously selected by the
Ministry of Justice. The police must inform the
accused of his right to a publicly assigned
defense counsel. If the convicted is unable to
pay his defense counsel the Treasury will in most
cases provide the lawyer’s fee and cover other
costs. In case of acquittal the State will nearly
always cover all costs.
It is the right of the accused to have his
defense counsel present during police
interrogation and court hearings, and he is
entitled to consult with counsel in private at all
times. The counselor is informed of the evidence
gathered by the police but in some cases he may
not notify the accused of the contents.

2. Procedures.

* Preparatory procedures for bringing a suspect to
trial. The first step in the criminal proceedings
is the police inquiry. While investigating, the
police do not act as agents of the government but
exercise their functions objectively as

* Official who conducts prosecution. The local
chief of police, who has a law degree together
with his deputies, has the authority to prosecute
in nearly all cases. The most serious cases are
referred to the district attorney, who is also in
charge of the cases for the High Court which
entail jury cases and appellate cases. The
Director of public prosecution conducts criminal
cases for the Supreme Court.

* Alternatives to trial. Prosecution may be
abandoned in cases where a conviction cannot be
expected because of lack of evidence, or charges
may be withdrawn in cases against young people or
first-time offenders. Withdrawal of charges often
will be combined with conditions similar to those
imposed by a suspended sentence. Conditional
withdrawal of charges only takes place in minor
cases, where the accused has made an unqualified
confession which is found to be true by the court.
Unconditional withdrawal of charges is used in two
different situations. In rare cases charges
against a suspect are dropped when there are
special mitigating circumstances in accordance
with the principle of opportunity. More often,
the public prosecutor may reduce the charges if
further prosecution will cause difficulties,
costs, or a prolonged period in court out of
proportion to the importance of the case or the
expected sentence. This may be the case, for
instance, in big tax evasion cases or fraud cases.

* Proportion of prosecuted cases going to trial.
Information not available.

* Pre-trial incarceration conditions. A person
against whom criminal prosecution is initiated is
not automatically subject to detention on remand.
Detention must be applied in accordance with the
principle of proportionality. Thus, it cannot be
used if the actual crime in fact only carries a
fine or lenient imprisonment. Beside these
conditions the general rules are: Firstly, there
must exist a reasonable suspicion that an
arrestable offense has been committed, i.e. an
offense which carries a maximum penalty for at
least one year and six months, e.g. ordinary theft
and burglary. Secondly, one or more of the
following special grounds for detention must be
present: Serious reasons to believe that the
accused will either abscond, that he might commit
further offenses of the same sort if left at
large, or that he will meddle with the evidence.
On specifically listed serious grounds detention
may also be used in order to protect the public
sense of justice. The court may decide that a
prisoner on remand is to be isolated inside the
prison. The decision has to be renewed at least
every second week. The average length of stays in
remand prison is estimated to be between two and
four weeks.

* Bail procedure. In cases where remand detention
is applicable the court may choose to release the
accused conditionally if the purpose of remand
detention can be obtained in a more lenient
manner. Release on bail has been used in very
rare cases and is not a usual part of the criminal
justice system.

* Proportion of pre-trial offenders incarcerated.
In 1992, the proportion of persons with prison
sentences who previously had been held in
pre-trial incarceration was estimated to be 27%.
There were also 23,781 convictions with
unsuspended or suspended prison sentences in
comparison to 6,407 cases of remand detention.


1. Administration.

The court system in criminal matters consists
of the Supreme Court, two high courts and 84 city
courts. A major part of all criminal cases are
resolved with the participation of two lay judges
in addition to the city court judge. Their votes
carry the same weight on all questions. In the
rare cases where a jury is instituted by the
Administration of Justice Act, twelve jurors
participate in the case in addition to three high
court judges. In jury cases the united lay votes
carry the same weight as the professional judges’

2. Judges.

* Number of judges. There are 15 supreme court
judges, 69 high court judges, and 195 judges in
the city courts.

* Appointment and qualifications. The judges all
have high university law degrees prior to their
engagement by the Ministry of Justice. After a
decade or more of work in the courts or in the
Ministry of Justice the judge will, according to
the Constitution, be appointed for life or until
his or her retirement at the age of 70.

3. Special Courts.

Denmark has no special courts in criminal
matters besides the ordinary court system. Thus,
juvenile cases, which are often settled by a
conditional withdrawal of charges, are handled by
the city court judges.

4. Procedure.

Confessions may influence the sentence in a
mitigating direction but the Administration of
Justice Act does not allow guilty pleas where the
accused is allowed to confess to a lesser crime.
There is no information on how the majority of
criminal cases are resolved.


1. Sentencing Process.

* Who determines the sentence? The sentence is
determined by the presiding judges.

* Is there a special sentencing hearing?
Information not available.

* Which persons have input into the sentencing
process? In preparing the case the police are
governed by the principle of objectivity which
means that the police are obliged to look at
circumstances that speak for as well as against
the accused. A social report is developed if it
is considered possible that the personal
conditions of the accused may influence the
determination of the penalty. The police write
such a report in cases where the sentence may be
suspended, or where charges may be conditionally
withdrawn, as well as in cases regarding the
mentally unfit where measures other than
punishment are considered. In some cases the
accused may be required to undergo a psychiatric
examination in a mental hospital.
All kinds of evidence, including witnesses’
statements, are supposed to be laid before the
court during the criminal proceedings on which
basis the court decides the sentence. In minor
cases and cases where the accused has made a full
confession the court consists of one city court
judge. In all criminal cases of first instance
where the permissible sentence is more severe than
a fine, two lay judges will participate in the

2. Types of Penalties.

* Range of penalties. The penalties are described
in the general part of the Criminal Code. They
are: fines, lenient prison (7 to 30 days), prison
(1 month to 16 years or imprisonment for life),
and community service orders. Prison sentences
and fines may be conditionally suspended and there
is a list of conditions such as probation,
abstaining from drug abuse, and payment of damages
that may be stipulated. The maximum penalty is
imprisonment for a lifetime which is prescribed
for homicide and a few other crimes of equal
gravity. In most cases these persons will be
given a conditional royal pardon after
approximately 12-14 years of imprisonment. The
penalty for a typical offense is supposed to be
within the lower half of the penalty range for the
crime, giving room for mitigating as well as
aggravating circumstances. If the case comprises
more than one criminal act the penalty must be
contained within the ranges of the most serious
offense so that penalties for different offenses
are not accumulated in an absolute way.
Each statute in the special part of the
Criminal Code will tell the kind of penalty
applicable for the crime and the upper range of
its duration. This gives the court the
opportunity to choose the actual penalty freely
within the ranges. The penalty ranges for theft
go from fines for petty theft to up to four years
imprisonment for aggravated theft. Violent
attacks and assault are usually punished with
prison sentences from one to four years.

* Death penalty. Information not available.


1. Description.

* Number of prisons and type. The correctional
service controls 15 prisons, one institution for
inmates needing psychiatric treatment, and 40
local jails. Five of the prisons and the
psychiatric institution are closed in that they
are secured by an external ring wall as well as by
internal precautions like secured buildings, and
electronic security systems combined with
relatively dense staffing. The staff does not
carry arms. Being used as remand detention
institutions, the local jails are also closed.
The remaining nine prisons are open institutions
which actually means that the inmates are
physically able to leave the institution. Two of
the closed prisons have both male and female
inmates. In one of these prisons there is
cohabitation between men and women within units.
There are also two open prison departments for

* Number of prison beds. In 1992 the prison
capacity totaled 3,797 and the jail capacity
totaled 1,615.

* Average daily/number of prisoners. In 1992
there was a daily average prison population of
3,597: 3,412 men and 185 women. The local jails
have a daily average population of 1,531.

* Number of annual admissions. The number of
annual admissions after conviction in 1992 was
9,741 persons.

* Actual or estimated proportion of inmates
incarcerated. As admissions are not distributed
by types of crime a comparison must be made among
unsuspended convictions to prison in 1992 which
total 8,153.
Crime Type Annual Daily
Admissions Average

Drug Crimes Not Available 7%
Violent Crimes Not Available 18%
Property Crimes Not Available 58%
Sex Crimes Not Available 2%
Other Not Available 15%
Total Not Available 100%

2. Administration.

* Administration. All prisons and jails are state
institutions administered by the Ministry of
Justice’s Department of Prisons and Probation.

* Prison guards. In 1992 the prison guards,
inclusive of vocational staff, totaled about 2,600
persons. The prison staff also consists of about
680 social welfare officers, teachers, health
officers, vicars, and office clerks. Thus, the
inmate – prison staff ratio is almost 1:1. The
prison staff is a mixed group of men and women but
figures on the gender distribution are not
available. Women are much appreciated in prison
guard functions.

* Training and qualifications. The basic
qualifications are good physical condition, good
personal and economic conditions, and good school
attainments. New recruits are usually required to
be between 21 and 29 years of age, of Danish
citizenship and having never been convicted. The
prison staff education takes place at the Prison
Educational Center. As is the case with the
police chiefs, the prison wardens possess
university law degrees.

* Expenditure on the prison system. In 1993 the
total expenditure on the prison system was 1,307
million Danish crowns. A revenue of 119 million
Danish crowns, corresponding to 9% of the total
expenditure, comes from the sale of inmate

* Number of prisoners awaiting trial. Information
not available.

3. Prison Conditions.

* Remissions. The policies of the correctional
service are governed by the following three
a. Normalization. As a starting point the inmate
is placed in the open prison closest to his home
in order to preserve family contacts and to pave
the way for a gradual release from the prison.
There must be specific reasons for instituting
control of inmates’ correspondence. Visits by
next-of-kin take place in secluded visiting rooms
with a couch. In the open prisons weekend leaves
are granted every third week to prisoners with a
low risk of recidivism. A prisoner in a closed
institution may obtain similar rights to weekend
leave when he has served one fourth of his
sentence. At some time during incarceration about
one third of the prisoners in closed prisons are
granted occasional leaves. The total number of
leaves per year is about 57,000. More than half
of these are so-called work leaves where an inmate
leaves the prison to go to work or to take part in
educational activities in society.
b. Self-administration. The inmate is responsible
for his own daily life. Important elements of
this approach are that food must be bought and
cooked by the inmate to which end he is paid a
fixed amount of money per day. The inmate is also
responsible for his personal hygiene, clothes’
laundry and repair. The prison encourages the
inmates to make meaningful use of leisure hours by
providing opportunity for sports and other
structuralized activities.
c. Release on parole and after-care. According to
a provision of the Criminal Code more than 90% of
the inmates are released on parole after having
served two thirds of their sentences. Almost 10%
of these will be released after serving between
one half and two thirds of the time, due to
special grounds. Royal pardon is possible
according to the Constitution, but rare. Outside
of imprisonment for life which necessitates the
use of pardoning, royal pardon is more commonly
used in connection with short-term sentences where
the convicted cannot endure the prison stay
because of severe illness or the like. In such
cases the pardon is normally conditioned on the
payment of a fine.
The probation and after-care system has local
offices in about 30 towns all over the country.
These offices attend to persons with suspended
sentences on probation, parolees under
supervision, and handles the supervision of
certain mentally aberrant persons who have been
sentenced to ambulant treatment. The serving of
community service orders also rests with the
probation and after-care system.

* Work/education. While serving his sentence the
inmate is obliged to work for which he is paid a
small hourly salary. The prison administration
tries to ensure that the working places equate
those found in modern society. In order to
encourage inmates to educate themselves the same
amount is paid to inmates who choose to go to the
prison school instead of going to work.

* Amenities/privileges. The prison provides
health care and necessary dental care. Sick
inmates will be hospitalized in ordinary


* Extradition. The criminal justice system of
Denmark respects human rights pronounced in the
European Convention for the Protection of Human
Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Rome 1950, and
the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of
Prisoners as recommended by the Committee of
Ministers of the Council of Europe in 1987.
Denmark has entered into bilateral
extradition treaties with the USA, Canada, Great
Britain and Belgium. On a multilateral basis,
Denmark has ratified the European Convention on
extradition from 1957. Extradition to and from
Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden takes place
according to similar laws passed in each country.

* Exchange of prisoners. Denmark has also
ratified European conventions on transfer of
criminals and criminal proceedings. As a
consequence of special regulations the transfer of
criminals as well as the transfer of criminal
proceedings takes place on a regular basis inside

* Specified conditions. In contrast with
extradition to other countries, the legislation on
extradition inside Scandinavia does not exempt its
own nationals from prosecution.

Note: this work was completed in 1993


See Also

  • Criminal Justice
  • Legal System
  • Criminology
  • Criminal Justice System

Further Reading

  • Cole, George F., S. J. Frankowski, and M. G. Gertz, (1987) Major Criminal Justice Systems. Beverly Hills: Sage.
  • David, R. and J. E. Brierley (1968) Major Legal Systems of the World Today. London: Free Press.
  • Fairchild, E. (1993), Comparative criminal justice systems. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  • Feeley, Malcolm M. (1973), “Two models of the criminal justice system”. Law and Society Review, 7(3): 407-425.


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