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Germany

Berlin To Tighten Measures against Dangerous Criminals

The German government wants to lock away particularly violent criminals and sex offenders with a law that would allow them to be held indefinitely in preventive detention even after they have been sentenced to prison.

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Behind firm lock and key.

When the partly-charred body of eight-year-old Julia was found on a smoldering wood pile near Giessen in the state of Hesse in July 2001, the brutality of the crime shook the nation.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said at the time about the culprit: "Lock him away -- and forever." Exactly three weeks ago, the 35-year-old culprit Thorsten Volk was sentenced for the murder and sexual abuse of Julia.

Though Julia's tormentor and murderer might be a free man someday, the same may not be the case for future offenders considered too dangerous to be walking around freely, if Chancellor Schröder's government has its way.

Protecting society from madmen

On Wednesday, the Schröder's cabinet agreed on a legal blueprint that will enable lawmakers to incarcerate accused individuals before trial on the assumption that their release would compromise the security of society.

The practice, known as "preventive detention," can in future also be used in the case of criminals who have served their sentence in jail but are still deemed too risky to be allowed to move freely outside prison walls.

Brigitte Zypries, Justizministerin

Brigitte Zypries, German Justice Minister

German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries (photo) said that the planned legislation would serve to protect society from dangerous criminals as far as possible. Preventive legislation, as opposed to a normal prison sentence, can be applied for an indefinite period of time.

"Ultimate means in penal law"

Zypries added that the planned law would also allow judges to recommend preventive detention even if the danger posed by the criminal is only confirmed after his sentencing, such as in the case of a sexual offender, whose earlier series of rape come to light after he's already received a jail term. "With it, it's possible that one could remain in preventive detention till the end of his life," Zypries said.

Up to now, the provision of preventive detention in Germany, had to be contained in the verdict or at least be mentioned as a caveat, though exceptions have been made in four cases.

At the same time the justice minister stressed that the practice of preventive detention had to be subject to stringent checks and requirements since it dealt with "imprisonment without guilt" and "absolute measures." Zypries added that it should only be applied as a last resort.

Also applicable to teenagers

The proposed law governing preventive detention is a reaction by Schröder's government to a February ruling by Germany's Constitutional Court that overturned similar state laws, saying that only the federal government had the right to implement such laws. In an additional ruling, the judges agreed that unlimited preventive detention was indeed in accordance with the constitution.

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Inmates in prison

The German government has also made clear that preventive detention could only be applied in the case of particularly dangerous criminals who have been sentenced to at least four years in prison and whose victims' lives have been physically threatened.

It would be applicable to culprits who were deemed "risky" even after undergoing psychiatric treatment and to delinquents between 18 and 21 years as well. The decision to implement preventive detention would also have to be reviewed every two years.

Critics slam proposed legislation

The proposed legislation, which is expected to become law in summer, has its share of critics.

One of them is Christian Ströbele, a parliamentarian of the Green party, the junior partner in the ruling government coalition. "The result isn't acceptable in this current form," Ströbele told the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily. Ströbele slammed the fact that the law could in future be applied to young adults aged 18 and above in particular, as well as for criminals who would be sentenced for the first time.

Even Erwin Huber, head of the Bavarian State Chancellery and member of the opposition conservative Christian Social Union, rejected the draft legislation as "unsatisfactory" and added that it wasn't clear why preventive detention could only be applied in the case of a minimum sentencing of four years. "We don't see a sensible explanation for such a limit," Huber said.

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