Looking for a Last Chance for Young Offenders Abroad | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 30.01.2003
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Looking for a Last Chance for Young Offenders Abroad

When teenage kicks mutate into hard crime, society has a problem. Germany is increasingly looking across the Atlantic to transform young repeat offenders.


Behind bars in Germany

The well-worn claim that "today’s youth is worse than ever before’"is generations older than the youngsters to which it refers. Crime has been a part of society since the outset, but what has changed over the centuries are the methods of punishment. Like much of the western world, Germany has tried and tested a whole array of correctional creations. The latest measures now involve sending the seriously badly behaved abroad.

One of these is „Murat“. The 14-year-old has been consistently terrorizing his surroundings since he was just ten. After notching up a phenomenal 150 offences, the Cologne Youth Welfare Office has now packed the young offender off to the United States to spend a year at the Glen Mills school for court-committed boys.

Tight ship

At Glen Mills, children don’t sit around an evening camp fire singing songs and toasting marshmallows. It’s tight ship run to rules far stricter than those they are used to. Youth crime lawyer, Joachim Schmitz-Justen believes in the importance of temporarily removing repeat offenders from surroundings which are potentially dangerous for them. „Critical phases of development, such as puberty, can quickly become very negative if you leave youths on the same streets where they have had bad experiences or done bad things’, says Schmitz-Justen.

The decision as to whether a young offender should be sent abroad or not, is made by the Youth Welfare Office and the trouble-maker in question. However, youngsters who turn down the offer of between one and two years abroad face the unhappy alternative of a spell behind bars in their home countries. Schmitz-Justen believes a decision by the Youth Welfare Office is not a sentence, but a measure for helping young offenders. „These measures are sometimes youngsters’ first opportunities to gain certain experiences, such as learning their own worth or developing a sense of self-confidence.“

No place in Germany

There is another good and highly practical reason for shipping systematically criminal kids to new pastures. Although few in number, serial youth offenders generally make headlines before they reach the age of criminal responsibility, and youth institutions in Germany very often have difficulties coping with such difficult clientele.

This has sparked discussions about setting up a Glen Mills type establishment on home ground, but Michael Walter of the „German Association for Youth Courts and Youth Courts Aid“ is skeptical. „Such establishments are very expensive and there would be a risk of filling it with youths who don’t need that degree of control or care“, says Walter.

Crime figures steady

The sharp increase in youth crime during the second half of the 90s has now stabilized, and even dropped a little, with police registering some 140,000 suspects under the age of 14 during 2001. This includes an increase in crime committed by young foreigners and settlers from the former Soviet Union.

According to Michael Walter, the problems these youngsters have fitting in with German culture only increases the risk of reverting to crime: “We know that there is a high number of migrant kids in our institutions for young offenders, which often soon leads to prison. This is partly because of their crimes, which sometimes draw more attention because of a certain level of violence”, says Michael Walter. But that is not the only reason. According to Michael Walter there is more work to be done in crime prevention, as opposed to turning to the weary path of punishment.