Penrose's law revisited: the relationship between mental institution beds, prison population and crime rate

Nord J Psychiatry. 2009;63(1):51-6. doi: 10.1080/08039480802298697.


In 1939, Lionel Penrose published a cross-sectional study from 18 European countries, including the Nordic, in which he demonstrated an inverse relationship between the number of mental hospital beds and the number of prisoners. He also found strong negative correlations between the number of mental hospital beds and the number of deaths attributed to murder. He argued that by increasing the number of mental institution beds, a society could reduce serious crimes and imprisonment rates. The aim of the study was to test Penrose's theories longitudinally by monitoring the capacity of all psychiatric institutions and prisons in a society over time. From official statistics, we collected and systematized all relevant information regarding the number of mental institution beds and prisoners in Norway during the years 1930-2004, along with major crime statistics for the same period. During the years 1930-59, there was a 2% population-adjusted increase in mental institution beds and a 30% decrease in the prison population. During 1960-2004, there was a 74% population-adjusted decrease in mental institution beds and a 52% increase in the prison population. The same period saw a 500% increase in overall crime and a 900% increase in violent crimes, with a concurrent 94% increase in the size of the country's police force. Penrose's law proved remarkably robust in the longitudinal perspective. As opposed to Penrose, however, we argue that the rise in crime rates only to a very limited extent can be attributed to mental health de-institutionalization.

MeSH terms

  • Crime / psychology
  • Crime / statistics & numerical data*
  • Crime / trends
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Deinstitutionalization / statistics & numerical data
  • Deinstitutionalization / trends
  • Health Services Accessibility / statistics & numerical data*
  • Health Services Accessibility / trends
  • Health Services Needs and Demand / trends
  • Homicide / statistics & numerical data
  • Homicide / trends
  • Hospital Bed Capacity / statistics & numerical data*
  • Hospitals, Psychiatric / statistics & numerical data*
  • Hospitals, Psychiatric / trends
  • Humans
  • Insanity Defense / statistics & numerical data
  • Norway
  • Police / statistics & numerical data
  • Police / trends
  • Prisoners / psychology
  • Prisoners / statistics & numerical data*
  • Statistics as Topic