Saxony's interior minister has called for a public register of sex offenders' whereabouts after a 13-year old spent five weeks in the clutches of a man convicted for sex crimes who lived in her Dresden neighborhood.
Experts disagree on how to prevent sex offenders from committing new crimes
Saxony has been shaken up by the case of 13-year-old Stefanie, who was kidnapped by a convicted sex offender on her way to school in Dresden on Jan. 11 and held captive until police located her five weeks later. Police investigators had not known that Stefanie's attacker lived in the neighborhood. Now the state's interior minister, Albrecht Buttolo, wants to laws changed so that the public knows where to find convicted sex offenders.
"Anyone convicted of a sex offence should be aware they will be watched for the rest of their lives and that their information will be kept on file," Buttolo told DW-TV. "I believe we have to follow such a hard course to protect the public. Of course there will be discussions over how that can be made law, but I think what crimes those people have committed should be made public."
But Germany's data protection commissioners do not share Buttolo's opinion. They point out that privacy protection laws also apply to pedophiles. German legislation prevents information such as a person's name or place of residence from being made public. The commissioners are opposed to having a register like in the US, where convicted sex offenders' names are published online. Proponents say such measures discourage felons from repeating their crimes and help in their detection.
Would it make a difference?
Data protection specialists, however, say the German authorities already have enough powers at their disposal to detect sex offenders.
A woman lays down flowers where 12-year-old Ulrike was kidnapped and later killed by a sex offender in Eberswalde in 2001
"In a case like this there are always calls for us to introduce something new, and people say everything we had up to this point is insufficient," said Andreas Schurig, Saxony's data protection commissioner.
"But we already have regulations -- here in Saxony and in Bavaria -- that allow police to examine registration files," he said.
All people who live in Germany are required by law to register their addresses with local authorities.
"The only question is: are the files held by the police -- which are partly accessible to all police forces across Germany -- fully up-to-date with all information," Schurig said. "If that is the case, the problem has already been solved."
Stefanie's attacker had been released from prison on parole. He had fulfilled all obligations to register with the authorities, who are not obliged to inform the police about a sex offender's presence in a community. They do so only if requested. When Stefanie was found, the police were investigating 50 people in the area with records of sex offences.
In the case of such a big manhunt, police also rely on information supplied by the public.
"It makes sense for the general population to be aware, but I don't think it is going to come to a situation in which the houses where these people live will be marked or that a monthly list will be published showing which sex offenders have been released and where they live," said forensic scientist Frank Wendt. "I could imagine the criminals would look for victims further away from their homes and travel greater distances to find them. There have been a few who've traveled across the country to commit their crimes."
Sex crimes on the decline
German police have a good record when it comes to detecting sex offenders. The debate about making information about sex offenders public comes at a time when such crimes are declining -- without the help of a registry.
Data protection commissioners are also concerned that if the public knows where to find convicted sex offenders, they could take the law into their own hands. Data protection commissioners fear the proposal could cause more harm than good.
"We know about cases in the US where citizens have looked at the register, taken a gun and shot the person on the list," Schurig said. "I don't want that to happen in Germany."