Juvenile crime has been climbing in Germany since the 80s, forcing the authorities to come up with innovative ways of instilling a sense of propriety into the nation's youngsters. Teen courts are one such attempt.
Youth crime is an ongoing problem in Germany
The idea of having teenagers stand trial in front of fellow teenagers came to Germany from the United States and has been making a contribution to Bavaria's youth justice system for the past five years. Success rates are such that other German states have been convinced to consider follow suit. Hesse opened a teen court in the town of Wiesbaden in September.
Hesse's Minister for Justice, Christean Wagner welcomed the step.
"Youth crime is not a reason for resignation, but for action. There is a chance with young criminals to prevent a career in crime at an early stage, and teen courts are a good way of reaching young people," he said.
Youngsters relate better to each other than to authoritative adults
The courts, of which there are three in Bavaria, work on the basis that wilful young people are more likely to listen to their contemporaries than to the stern voice of authority from within an imposing judge's gown. Walther Schmidt, chief public prosecutor of Aschaffenburg which is home to Germany's first ever teen court, believes verdicts passed there can have a lasting corrective effect.
"It is different to having a judge bearing down and ordering defendants to pay for their sins. The teenagers at the court are the same age and on the same wave length as those on trial, they speak the same language and it makes the defendants feel understood," Schmidt said.
Between 50 and 70 young offenders are brought before the court in Aschaffenburg annually, and Schmidt says that although the final report on the success of the venture over the past half decade has yet to be published, indicators show that those youngsters who are tried by their contemporaries are less likely to repeat offend than those who appear before a regular youth court.
Theft is one of the most common crimes the teen courts deal with
The courts are run by volunteers from between the ages of 14 and 20, who are plucked from different kinds of schools -- of which there are many in Germany -- in order to ensure a good cross-section of society and ideas and to prevent any claims of elitism.
They are expected to work in their free time and are not paid for their contribution to the bettering of society. Roman Posesk of the Hesse Ministry of Justice says it’s a good experience for everyone.
"Running a teen court is not only a way of reducing crime but a good way of drawing attention to the problems of young offenders, and giving the pupils on the panel a sense of responsibility," said Posesk.
They are carefully trained in preparation for their voluntary legal work, which they are expected to stick at for between two and three years. The cases on which they have to rule are carefully selected and include such crimes as theft, driving without a license, sale and possession of drugs, fraud, abstraction of documents, damage to property and assault.
Once the panel of young judges has assessed the defendant's testimony, they have to suggest a fitting punishment, for which chief public prosecutor Dr. Schmidt says "there are endless possibilities."
These include voluntary work, writing reflective essays on issues relevant to the crime committed, small financial contributions to voluntary organizations, participation in transport education and temporary ban on using cell phones or computers.
Teen courts try to find a punishment to fit the crime
Unlike regular courts, the teen judges don't have the power to enforce their suggested punishment, but have to seek endorsement from the defendants themselves and their legal representatives.
"The idea of the teen courts is that everyone is there on a voluntary basis. The young offenders have to agree to go there in the first place and have to consent to their proposed penalty," Schmidt said.
Given the liberal nature of the courts and the forfeits they impose, it’s a credit to them that the number of juveniles who repeat offend after having been tried in this way is lower than among those who go through the conventional justice system.
But that said Posesk is realistic about just how much such ventures can achieve.
"We want the teen court in Wiesbaden to help reduce youth crime, but we know it is only one stone in the mosaic. The court won't significantly alter juvenile crime levels, but is part of a bigger concept which aims to tackle the problem."