''Sweden's correctional system is one of the three best . . . in the world,'' together with those in Denmark and the Netherlands, according to Alvin Bronstein , director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project.
Swedes believe that prisons - no matter how compassionately run - always harm people, Mr. Bronstein says, so they imprison as few people as possible, a philosophy that is written into Swedish law. Only those who pose a clear danger to public safety are imprisoned - and Sweden views drunken drivers as chief among these.
Swedish recidivism rates run about 30 percent, Bronstein says, which is comparable to some US figures. But he adds that Sweden doesn't expect the threat of imprisonment to deter crime - except for drunken driving and white-collar crimes.
On a visit to Sweden, Bronstein says, he was struck by the absence of tension in the prisons - a condition he says is impossible to fake for the benefit of a visitor. Inmate-to-inmate violence is almost unknown, Bronstein and other sources said.
Why do the Swedish and American justice systems differ so sharply?
''There is a resistance in the minds of (Swedes), I think, toward incarcerating people,'' says AnnBritt Grunewald, warden of Sweden's maximum-security Osteraker National Prison. The United States, on the other hand , locks up lawbreakers at more than triple Sweden's rate.
There is also a difference in what the two countries are willing to pay.
At the first signs of prison crowding (triggered by the drug crackdown), Sweden's Riksdag (parliament) responded with stepped-up funding to renovate old prisons and build new ones.
The US, which often jams two, three, even four men in a cell, wants to lock up still more - while trying to slash budgets. Lack of funding means lack of staff, and cutbacks mean prisoners often stay packed in their cells nearly 24 hours a day - a situation many correctional officials say breeds riots and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
* Size and simplicity. Sweden's small size simplifies communications. It has one criminal code, one correctional system. The US has numerous criminal codes and hundreds of separate correctional systems - federal, state, city, county.
* Policymaking. In Sweden, policy for each segment of the criminal justice system is set by an interdisciplinary committee drawn from unions, allied professions, and the public. Corrections has a say in police business, and police play a part in correctional policymaking. According to Bronstein, nothing like this exists in the US, apart from legislative oversight committees.
* Leadership. Unlike US corrections commissioners, most of whom are appointed by state governors, and who last - according to recent studies - an average of about two years, Sweden's commissioners have the tenure needed for effective planning and leadership. Appointed by Sweden's minister of justice, they serve for six years.
There's also an easy give-and-take among Swedish corrections officials, the government, and the public, observers say. Swedish prison commissioner Bo Martinsson, for example, used to be a member of the Riksdag. And Mrs. Grunewald - who has served on her city council for seven years - was recently elected to serve as a substitute (or understudy) on the Riksdag.