Finnish Criminal Justice System

The Finnish 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 Finnish 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 Finland. The section on crime definitions and statistic provides some basis of “output” of the criminal justice bureaucracies of the country.


1. Political system.
Finland is a republic with a strongly
centralized government. The country is divided
into twelve provinces, which in turn are divided
into 248 police districts, each generally
comprising one or two municipalities.

2. Legal system.
The Criminal Law is elaborated in the
Criminal Code (1889) and separate statutes such as
the Young Offenders Act (1939), the Narcotics Act
(1972), the Traffic Act (1981) and the Conditional
Sentences Act (1918). The Criminal Code is
divided into a “general part” with provisions on
jurisdiction, age of criminal responsibility,
justification and excuse, sentencing and
forfeiture, and a “special part” with provisions
defining the different offenses and establishing
the levels of punishment.
The law on criminal procedure is contained in
the Code of Judicial Procedure (1734). Since its
initial adoption, the Code of Judicial Procedure
has been amended several times. with extensive
reforms most recently in 1991. In the
administration of justice, the country is divided
into six appellate districts and 95 judicial

3. History of criminal justice system.
The Finnish legal system developed during the
seven centuries (ca. 1150-1809) when Finland was
part of the Swedish kingdom. For this reason, the
legal system shares many characteristics with the
other Scandinavian legal systems. Strict legalism
(an emphasis on the rule of law) and a developed
set of democratic controls on the exercise of
discretion are the two premier features of Finnish
law. The approach to the investigation of
offenses can be termed inquisitorial, with
increasingly strong adversarial elements.
The Criminal Code has been amended
extensively since its original adoption in 1889.
It is currently undergoing a total reform. One
third of its provisions were amended by an Act of
Parliament in 1990, and a third by an Act of
Parliament in 1995. The purpose of the reform is
to ensure that the Criminal Code defines and deals
with all crimes consistently, while taking into
account the fundamental changes in society that
have occurred over the past several decades.


1. Classification of crimes.

* Legal classification. In Finland, there are no
general distinctions or categories of crime.
Rather, offense distinctions are based on the
expected punishment for the offense, or the “penal
latitude” defined by law. For example, a person
may be held in pre-trial custody if the maximum
punishment for the offense is imprisonment for
over 1 year.

* Age of criminal responsibility. The age of
criminal responsibility is 15 years. Children who
commit offenses below this age are not brought
before a court. These cases are dealt with by
municipal social welfare boards. Youths between
the ages of 15 and 18 benefit from a reduction of
the sentencing scale.

* Drug offenses. Finland has an extremely
restrictive approach to drugs. With the obvious
exception of controlled medical drugs, the
preparation, transport, possession, use, import,
export and sale of any drugs defined by the
international convention to which Finland has
acceded, is illegal.

2. Crime statistics

* Murder. Each year, some 30 murders and 100
incidents of manslaughter are reported to the
police. These figures do not include attempts. In
1990, 23 murders and 122 incidents of manslaughter
were reported to the police. Homicides are
divided into murder and manslaughter. Murder is
defined as the killing of a person with deliberate
intent, for gain, with particular cruelty or
brutality, in a manner that causes general danger,
or the killing of a civil servant.

* Rape. In 1990, 381 rapes or attempted rapes
were reported to the police. Rape is defined as
“using violence or the threat of violence to
force a woman into sexual intercourse against her
will”. Marital rape is not covered by the

* Theft. In 1990, 125,909 thefts and 4,800
aggravated thefts were reported to the police.
The figures include attempts. Theft is defined as
the “unauthorized taking of chattels from the
possession of another person.” If the property in
question is of “special value, or the theft
resulted in a relatively serious loss to the
victim taking into consideration the circumstances
of the victim, or the offender took advantage of
the helpless condition of the victim, or the
offender was armed with a gun, explosives, or
other similar dangerous implements, or the offense
involved breaking into a residence and the offense
as a whole is deemed aggravated,” the offense may
be classified as aggravated theft. Theft of motor
vehicles is criminalized separately.

* Serious drug offense. In 1990, the police
recorded a total of 2536 drug offenses, of which
267 were classified as “serious drug offenses.”
The figures include attempts. A drug offense is
defined as serious if: “1) the offense involves a
particularly dangerous drug or a large amount
of drugs, 2) considerable financial gain is
sought, 3) the offender acted as part of a group
especially organized for the large-scale
commission of such an offense, 4) the offense
seriously endangers the life or health of
several people, or 5) drugs are given to minors or
are otherwise distributed in an unscrupulous
manner, and the offense as a whole is
deemed aggravated.”

* Crime regions. Among the Scandinavian
countries, Finland has a reputation for having a
greater violent crime problem. However, a recent
victimization study showed that Finland was in the
middle range among Western European countries in
respect to violent offenses (van Dijk, Killias and
Mayhew, pp. 35-38).


1. Groups most victimized by crime.
Victimization surveys indicate that the
typical victim of a violent offense is a young,
urban male. For property offenses, the
victimization surveys indicate that the growth in
the number of these offenses is being borne by
businesses. The risk of an individual being the
victim of a property offense has remained stable
for the past decade.

2. Victims’ assistance agencies.
National victim hot lines were established in
Finland in 1994. Both volunteer groups and
municipalities operate shelters for victims of
domestic violence. In addition, the health care
and social security systems aid victims of crime.

3. Role of victim in prosecution and sentencing.
The victim of a crime plays an important role
in Finnish law. The victim has the right to
prosecute an offense, independent of the decision
of the public prosecutor. The victim can take
part in all stages of the prosecution. For
example, the victim may submit evidence, suggest
questions and comment on the evidence. The victim
may request compensation in connection with the
criminal proceedings. Compensation may also be
claimed from the state for an injury or
injury-related loss arising from any offense. In
this regard, the Finnish scheme is among the
most generous in the world.

4. Victims’ rights legislation.
No separate victims’ rights legislation
exists in Finland. Several provisions in the Code
of Judicial Procedure and the Criminal Code ensure
the right of the victim to access to justice, to
redress and to be heard. In theory, victims have
extremely broad rights and possibilities of being
involved in the resolution of the case. In
practice, as is the case in all other countries,
the rights may remain unused due, for example, to
lack of awareness of the rights or to practical


1. Administration.
The Finnish police are organized on an
hierarchical national basis under the authority of
the Ministry of the Interior and subject to the
Police Act. The chain of command is totally
independent of the military structure.

2. Resources.

* Expenditures. During the 1990 calendar year,
the budget of the national police force was
2,053,564,000 Finnmarks.

* Number of Police. Finland has a total of 11,942
police personnel, of whom some 20% are women
(1990 data).

3. Technology.

* Availability of police automobiles. Police are
well-equipped with a variety of motor vehicles
both for patrolling and for special purposes.
Currently, the most common patrol car being
acquired is the Ford Mondeo.

* Electronic equipment. The police have at their
disposal modern computer and telecommunications

* Weapons. Police patrol officers are armed with
a .38 caliber pistol or revolver. A special unit
based in Helsinki, known colloquially as the
“Beagle Boys” is trained in a variety of weapons
and special tactics. For example, this unit might
be used for the arrest of an offender who is
suspected of being armed and dangerous. The
Beagle Boys are also trained in anti-terrorist
tactics. As of this writing, Finland has not had
the need to use the unit for this purpose.

4. Training of police.
Training on the entry level is provided in
the Police Institute. The basic course is divided
into two modules of 11 and 6 months, with a one-
year period of on-the-job training between the
two. Further training is provided in the Police
Academy, where intermediate courses last 6 months,
and advanced courses last 12 months.

5. Discretion.

* Use of force. The statutory basis for the
rights and responsibilities of the police is
provided by the Police Act, the Pre-Trial
Investigation Act and the Coercive Means of
Investigation Act. In brief, these statutes state
that the use of force by police should be in
proportion to the seriousness of the suspected
offense in question, and force should be sued only
if less intrusive means would be inappropriate.
For example deadly force can only be used in
self-defense or in defense of another person
against whom an immediate and potentially fatal
assault is occurring or is about to occur.

* Stop/apprehend suspect: The police may stop and
question anyone if it is regarded as necessary for
their work. A person may be apprehended if
a standing arrest or remand warrant has been
issued, or if the conditions for an arrest are
present and the matter will not tolerate a delay.
Any person has the right to apprehend an offender
caught in the act or escaping from the scene of a
crime if the offense may be punishable by
imprisonment or if the offense is petty assault,
petty theft, petty embezzlement, petty
unauthorized use, petty vandalism, or petty fraud.

* Decision to arrest. A person may be arrested
and held in pre-trial custody if the person is
suspected of having committed an offense for which
the maximum sentence is imprisonment for over one
year, or if it is probable that he or she will
attempt to evade or obstruct justice, or
continue his or her criminal activity.
The police are granted the discretion to
caution the offender if the offense is minor and
would not have led to a punishment more severe
than a fine.

* Search and seizure. Chapters 4 and 5 of the
Coercive Means of Investigation Act contain
detailed provisions on search and seizure. The
main rule regarding search is that it may be
carried out if the suspected offense is punishable
by at least 6 months imprisonment and the search
is necessary for the investigation of the offense.
The decision is usually made by a senior police
officer; however, if the matter brooks no delay,
the search may be carried out by a policeman.
The rule regarding seizure is that an object may
be seized if there is cause to assume that it may
be used as evidence in a criminal case, if it has
been criminally obtained, or if the court will
order it confiscated.

* Confessions. There is no specific provision on
the weight of a confession as evidence. Finnish
courts apply the rule of “free assessment of
evidence;” with the exception of statements
obtained through the use of torture, no evidence
is ipso facto inadmissible. In practice, courts
seek collaborative evidence to confirm a

6. Accountability.
Complaints against the police may be dealt
with internally, by the superiors of the police
officer in question, or externally, by the
Parliamentary Ombudsman. The Ombudsman is
empowered to obtain any information necessary in
his investigations. He also has the power to
issue cautions and reprimands, and suggest that
disciplinary action be undertaken.


1. Rights of the accused.

* Rights of the accused. A person who is
suspected of an offense has the standard rights,
including the right to counsel, the right to be
informed of the charges and the right to a speedy

* Assistance to the accused. If he or she
cannot afford counsel, assistance can be provided
by the municipal legal aide office. Persons held
in custody have the right to representation by a
member of the Bar Association at state expense.

2. Procedures.

* Preparatory procedures for bringing a suspect to
trial. It is the responsibility of the police to
investigate offenses. The customs and taxation
authorities maintain investigative powers in their
field. The results of the investigation are
turned over to the public prosecutor, who decides
whether the facts are sufficient to warrant
Simplified procedures are used in the case of
petty crime. Minor traffic offenses are dealt with
by a “petty fine” imposed by the police according
to a tariff. Petty fines cannot be converted into
imprisonment. “Summary penal orders” can be used
for all offenses subject to a maximum punishment
of, at most, 6 months of imprisonment, provided
that the prosecutor calls for the imposition of a
fine. The penal order is issued by the police
under the supervision of the prosecutor, and it is
approved by the court. Most offenders pay the
fine, but the offender has the right to challenge
the penal order in court. Defaulters may be
sentenced to prison.

* Official who conducts prosecution. The public
prosecutor or the victim conducts the prosecution.
In urban areas, the public prosecutor holds a
full- time position. In rural areas, the public
prosecutor is usually the district police chief or
the assistant police chief. Public prosecutors are
under the supervision of the Chancellor of

* Alternatives to trial. The Finnish system does
not use plea bargaining, nor does it recognize
medical or other treatment as an alternative to
the criminal justice process except in the case of
manifest insanity. However, those defendants who
are found guilty but who are not sentenced on the
grounds that they have been found criminally
irresponsible are turned over to the National
Board of Medicine. The Board considers the need
for involuntary commitment in a mental hospital.
There are two alternatives to court
proceedings. The first is the transfer to the
municipal social welfare board. This option,
though not often used, is limited to cases that
involve offenders between the ages of 15 and 20.
The second option is mediation, the use of which
has gradually increased in Finland since the mid-
1980s. The number of cases disposed of in
mediation number approximately 5,000 per year.
Mediation is primarily, but not solely. used in
the case of juvenile offenders.
The Finnish prosecutorial system has
traditionally been very legalistic, with tight
restraints on the use of discretion. These
restraints were eased in 1990, when the public
prosecutor was given the right to waive charges in
three cases: (a) when the offense was petty and
the expected punishment would be at most a fine
or, in the case of offenders below the age of 18,
six months’ imprisonment, as long as the offense
was not deemed to have been due to a blatant
disregard of the law; (b) the suspect was already
to be charged with other, similar offenses, and
the combined punishment would not be essentially
affected by the new charges in question; and (c)
the waiving of charges is merited on other grounds
of equity.

* Proportion of prosecuted cases going to trial.
Most cases are dealt with through summary penal
fines. Of the 393,586 persons convicted during
1990, only 81,697 (21%) went to full trial.

* Pre-trial incarceration conditions. Although no
statistics are available on the proportion of
persons held in pre-trial custody who are later
sentenced to imprisonment, this proportion is
undoubtedly quite high, and probably in excess of

* Bail procedure. Bail is not available in
Finland. However, it should be noted that the
Coercive Means of Investigation Act places tight
restrictions on the use and length of custody.

* Proportion of pre-trial offenders incarcerated.
At the end of 1991, 264 prisoners were awaiting
trial. This low figure does not include person in
police custody; estimates are unavailable. In
general, only persons charged with serious
offences are placed in pretrial custody; most
suspects are released on their own recognizance,
or are not even arrested.


1. Administration. The general court system has
three tiers: the Supreme Court, six Courts of
Appeal, and 95 lower courts. Lower court cases
can be appealed in part or in full by the
prosecutor, the defendant or the victim in the
Court of Appeal. Cases dealt with by the Court of
Appeal can be brought to the Supreme Court only if
the Supreme Court grants leave of appeal.
Until the end of 1993, the lower courts were
divided into city courts and rural courts. At the
end of 1993, the lower courts were unified, with,
in most cases, one professional judge and three
lay judges participating in the consideration of
each case. When required by the complexity of the
case or other factors, the composition of the
court can be augmented by an additional
professional judge. Cases involving defendants
charged with offenses punishable by at most
eighteen months imprisonment can be decided by a
single judge.

2. Special courts.

* Military courts. The only special criminal
court existing in the Finnish system is the
military court. Certain lower courts are
designated as potential military courts. When
deciding a case involving a military offense, the
composition of the court will be augmented by one
professional judge trained in military criminal
law. The charges are brought by a military
prosecutor. In all other respects, the procedure
followed is the same as in the general courts.

3. Judges.

* Number of judges. At the end of 1990, Finland
had 661 professional judges.

* Appointment, training, and qualifications.
Lower court judges are appointed by the Supreme
Court. Court of Appeal and Supreme Court judges
are appointed by the President of the Republic.
The basic qualifications are a legal education
followed by a minimum of one years’ practice as a
court clerk and some practice as an apprentice


1. Sentencing process. The sentence is imposed
by the court at the end of the trial. No separate
sentencing hearings are held. If the defendant is
a juvenile and the threatened punishment is
imprisonment, a social history report is prepared
by the local social welfare board or the Probation
and Parole Association.

2. Types of penalties

* Range of penalties. The sanctions that can be
imposed by the court include day-fines, community
service, suspended imprisonment, and imprisonment.
Day-fines are imposed in between 1 and 120 units,
at roughly one-third the gross daily income of the
offender. Sentences of imprisonment for up to two
years can be suspended; this suspension rarely
involves supervision. The general minimum
sentence of imprisonment is 14 days, and the
general maximum is 12 years. Murder is punishable
by life imprisonment.
Of the some 400,000 persons brought to court
each year, over 310,000 are sentenced to a fine
through summary proceedings, and over 50,000 are
sentenced to a fine following full criminal
proceedings. Some 17,000 are sentenced to
suspended imprisonment, and some 12,000 are
sentenced to imprisonment.
In 1991, the median sentence of imprisonment
was 3.6 months. Those leaving prison have served
a median term of 5.5 months; The discrepancy is
due to the additive policy used to sentence
recidivists. The sentences of imprisonment are
typically imposed for aggravated drunken driving
(over 40% of all sentences of imprisonment imposed
during a year) and for aggravated theft, theft,
and motor vehicle theft (some 30%). In 1990, only
356 persons were sentenced to imprisonment for 2
years or more; the offenses in question were
typically homicide, attempted homicide, aggravated
assault, robbery and aggravated theft.
The sentence is affected not only be the
definition of the offense but also by any
aggravating and mitigating factors noted in the
general part of the Criminal Code. Among the
aggravating factors are the commission of the
crime as a member of an organized group,
commission of several separate offenses, and a
criminal record if it can be shown that the record
demonstrates blatant disregard for the law. Among
the mitigating factors are sudden pressures on the
offender to commit the offense, the youth of the
offender, and the attempt of the offender to
assist in clearing the offense or limiting the
harm caused by the offense.

* Death penalty. Finland has totally abolished the
use of capital punishment which was last used in
peace time in 1826.


1. Description.

* Number of prisons and type. Finland has a
network of 15 closed prisons, 21 open prisons or
sections of prisons, a juvenile prison, a prison
mental hospital, a prison hospital and two social
rehabilitation institutes. All prisons are
administered by the National Prison
Administration, which is subordinate to the
Ministry of Justice.

* Number of prison beds. The prisons contain a
total of 4,210 beds.

* Number of annual admissions. During 1991, a
total of 8,874 persons entered prison.

* Average daily population/Number of prisoners.
The daily average population in prison in Finland
has been decreasing since the late 1950s. At the
end of 1991, the prisons held 3,067 male prisoners
and 108 female prisoners over the age of 20. The
also held 21 persons who were 20 years of age or

* Actual or estimated proportions of inmates
incarcerated for:

Proportion of inmates incarcerated for:
Drug offenses 3%
Violent offenses 24%
Property offenses 36%
Drunken driving 18%
Oother offenses 19%
Total 100%

2. Administration.

* Number of prison guards. The total prison staff
is 2,608 persons (1990 data), of whom 308 are
classified as managerial, 1,624 as custodial, 257
as treatment and 419 as “other”.

* Training and qualifications. The training is
provided by the Prison Training Service. The
basic course lasts 13 months, and includes three
months of on-the-job training.

* Expenditure on prison system. During the 1990
calendar year, the budget of the prison
administration department was 533 million

3. Prison conditions.

* Remissions. Prisoners who have served a sentence
of at least one month are normally granted
automatic parole after having served
two-thirds of their sentence. First-time
prisoners are released on parole after having
served one-half of their sentence. Persons on
parole are subject to supervision.

* Work/education. Prisoners are required to work,
although they may be allowed to study instead.

* Amenities/privileges. By law, the essence of
imprisonment is solely the deprivation of liberty.
In all other respects, life in prison should be
arranged in such a way that it resembles life in
free society as much as possible. Prison
furloughs (leave) are granted relatively


* Extradition. Finland has entered into a number
of bilateral and multilateral agreements on
extradition and other mutual assistance.
The oldest agreements are among the Nordic
countries; for example, the 1960 Nordic Agreement
on the extradition of offenders and the
1963 Nordic Agreement on the enforcement of
sentences were adopted through the enactment of
parallel legislation in all the Nordic
countries. Finland has also had agreements on
legal assistance with the former USSR (1978),
Poland (1980) and Hungary (1981) as well as a
separate agreement on “skyjacking” with the former
USSR (1975). In 1990, Finland became a member of
the Council of Europe, and has signed, among
others, the European Convention for the Protection
of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1990),
the European Convention on Extradition (1971) and
the European Convention on Mutual Assistance in
Criminal Matters (1981).
Finland refuses to extradite a Finnish
national or a person suspected of a military or a
political offense, unless such an offense involves
homicide or attempted homicide with intent.
Finnish law will not allow extradition if there is
the danger that the accused will be persecuted on
the basis of racial, national, religious, or
political grounds, or of allegiance, or political

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.


Aromaa, Kauko and Heiskanen, Markku:
Piilorikollisuus 1988 (Hidden crime 1988),
National Research Institute of Legal Policy
Publication no. 117, Helsinki 1992
Criminality Known to the Police, Central
Statistical Office of Finland XXIII A:123,
Helsinki (annual publication)
Joutsen, Matti: The Criminal Justice System of
Finland. A General Introduction, Ministry of
Justice of Finland, Helsinki 1990
National Research Institute of Legal Policy:
Rikollisuustilanne 1991. Rikollisuus ja
seuraamusj„rjestelm„ tilastojen valossa.
(English summary: Criminality in Finland
1991). Helsinki 1992 (annual publication).

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