Why Denmark sends juvenile delinquents on a Caribbean cruise

Denmark has spent millions on a new method for rehabilitating young offenders: a year-long sailing voyage.  

Alfredo Sosa / The Christian Science Monitor
Danish juvenile offenders spend a year in the Caribbean on a boat similar to this one.

Denmark has a slightly unorthodox destination for juvenile offenders and addicts. Instead of spending a year behind bars in a detention facility, young offenders can spend a year on a boat in the Caribbean. 

While aboard sailing vessels operated by the rehabilitation company Den Maritime Base, young offenders work, receive tutoring, and enjoy wholesome outdoor activities. 

Christian, a now-22-year-old Dane who was sent to the Caribbean after holding up a convenience store with a carving knife when he was 16, told Denmark's MetroExpress newspaper that during his rehabilitation he climbed two volcanoes, frequently went jet-skiing, "made excursions into the jungle," and nearly completed his diving certificate. 

According to Flemming Olsen, director of family affairs at Frederikssund council on the island of Zealand, the program is not intended to be a fun vacation for the young offenders; it is a necessary detox from the negative influences that caused participants to fall into criminal activity in the first place. 

“The Caribbean might sound like an exotic place to go, but it’s important to stress that we are in no way talking about a holiday,” Olsen told The Telegraph. “We are doing this so that they can get away from an environment of drug abuse. They are maybe caught up in crime, such as drug dealing and theft.”

The program has received some criticism from some who view the year as a reward for criminal behavior. Ole Jacobssen, chief executive of Frederikssund council, says a common misconception is that the program is a relaxing getaway, when in reality the young people work from 7:30 in the morning until 7:30 at night. Teachers on board also provide tutoring in basic subjects, as many of the participants are high-school drop-outs. 

"If you're told a story that young guys and girls are being sent out on a holiday on a yacht, I can totally understand that doesn’t sound OK," he said in an interview with The Telegraph. "But that isn't what's happening. It’s definitely not a holiday, there’s a very strict program there."

Even this new environment is not without its negative influences, however. According to Christian, who prefers not to have his last name released, it is fairly easy for the young people to obtain marijuana and alcohol, MetroExpress reported. 

Henrik Oxlund, Den Maritime Base's Managing Director, said in an interview with The Telegraph that the company is aware of the marijuana issue and is trying to minimize the problem.

“Yes, there have been problems with joints,” he said. “If we catch them, they either get a warning or they get sent home, which has happened in the past. You’ve got to remember, these are extremely difficult youths.”

For Christian, the program doesn't appear to have had a lasting effect. After he was sent home early for allegedly threatening the captain of the ship, he began dealing drugs and joined AK81, a street gang associated with the Hells Angels. 

Acccording to MetroExpress, Danish municipalities have spent an estimated $6.2 million sending 59 young offenders and addicts through the Den Maritime Base program.

However, Jacobssen says that the program will save local social services money in the long run by intervening before juvenile offenders become career criminals. 

"We would have costs with these young people whether they were sent on this project or not," he told The Telegraph. "If we didn’t invest in these people now they would be much more expensive over their whole lifetime, whether it's the cost of prison or whatever."

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