American rapper A$AP Rocky was released from jail on Friday, pending the final verdict in his trial, but his journey through the Swedish criminal justice system is not over. Swedish prosecutors argued that he, with his codefendants, got into an altercation last month with a man, Mustafa Jafari, punched him, broke his headphones, and struck him with a bottle. If convicted, A$AP Rocky faces up to two years in prison.
In the United States, a near-constant stream of tweets, some from the highest levels of government — including public support of A$AP Rocky from President Trump — relentless celebrity commentary, and online petitions have made the operation of the Swedish justice system a focal point of contentious debate.
While much of the Swedish criminal justice system may seem familiar, there are several important differences, some of which may hold sway over the case and potential sentence.
Sweden is a parliamentary democracy with a comprehensive public welfare system. This structure of government sets up a distinct approach to the administration of justice. The prime minister, appointed by a majority of the Riksdag, the elected parliament, is the head of the government. Despite this, they cannot simply intervene in a criminal matter. In 2017, the prime minister was publicly reprimanded for discussing the need for strict punishment in a particular case.
Unlike the U.S., where three independent branches of government have counterbalanced roles, Sweden’s police, prosecutors, courts, and correctional system all fall under the Ministry of Justice. Therefore, the perceived independence of both the prosecutor and the judiciary are considered especially important to the rule of law in Sweden.
Though both Sweden and the U.S. have a constitution, they approach individual liberties differently. Because of this, A$AP Rocky spent the time between his arrest and trial in a Swedish jail. In the U.S., the Eighth Amendment guarantees that an individual has the right to seek bail. For many courts, this means a defendant must surrender money or property to be released, a practice under fire in Philadelphia. Bail is prohibited in Sweden as it is seen as increasing disparities based on socio-economic status. An assessment of the defendant’s likelihood of flight, among other factors, is used instead. The international rapper was apparently considered to be too risky. Sweden has been criticized for the use of this kind of broad pretrial detention.
Other differences between the U.S. and Sweden’s approaches appear in the courtroom. A single judge presides over every American criminal trial. In Sweden, a panel of judges made of one professional judge and three so-called lay judges have this role. A lay judge is a community member who, aside from being a Swedish citizen, has no special legal training. These four individuals are responsible for deciding the case — there are no juries in the Swedish court system.
Sweden and the U.S. also approach sentencing distinctly. If he were to be found guilty, A$AP Rocky faces a maximum of two years in a Swedish prison. A more probable outcome would be a conditional sentence (served in the community and without restriction on movement; essentially a suspended sentence) and a fine (set proportional to his income to ensure fairness). Though it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly analogous charges under Pennsylvania law, aggravated assault (an attempt to cause serious bodily harm with a weapon) has a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment; the sentence for a simple assault is double the Swedish penalty.
Restitution is also dealt with differently. In this case, the victim is seeking 139,700 Swedish kronor (about $14,500) from the artist, which is unusually high. Harm caused by crime is commonly addressed through the health and social welfare systems, not from the offender directly. Interestingly, if A$AP Rocky is found to be innocent, he has a right to seek restitution from the Swedish state for his own suffering and for the loss of income caused by his detention. For a musician who canceled shows, this amount could be fairly high. While the former is common in the U.S., the latter is unheard of in cases like this.
Even a casual observer of the A$AP Rocky case will notice it highlights two different approaches to criminal justice. The legal and cultural foundations supporting those two systems are even more distinct. Understanding them gives an opportunity to reevaluate assumptions and challenges in the American system today.