A recent and fatal teenage attack on a seven-year-old boy near Berlin has promoted cries from the Christian Democrats (CDU) for Germany to review its liberal approach to dealing with criminals, however young they are.
How far can youths go before they wind up behind bars?
It was a particularly brutal and gratuitous crime, in which a boy of 16 beat an innocent child and neighbor to death, and subsequently attributed his violence to "personal frustration." It can be of no surprise to anyone that such savage behavior should unleash calls for tighter measures to prevent any future repetition of such tragedies. But opinions on exactly how to deal with Germany's delinquent youngsters vary enormously.
A correction center in northern Germany
Some say they should be given the benefit of the doubt on the grounds that they cannot be held fully responsible for their own actions until they come of age. Others refute such claims as dangerously naïve, bellowing that acts of such evil ill-will should be paid for through the iron bars of a correction center.
There are currently some 6,000 criminals serving their time in juvenile offenders institutes across the country, but if the CDU had its way, that figure could be far higher. In a statement issued following the horrific juvenile attack last month, chairman of the CDU Berlin parliamentary group, Andreas Gram, and CDU legal expert, Nicolas Zimmer, called for a radical rethink.
"The soft touch era is finally over. The justice system should react more swiftly to the first cases and signs of a criminal career, and be quicker to sentence violent young criminals to imprisonment," they said.
No more coddling
Among other things, they propose detaining "profoundly dangerous and criminal children and youths" in special purpose, enclosed premises and reducing the age of criminal responsibility below its current minimum of 14. They have also called for the regulation which currently allows young adults up to the age of 21 to be tried under juvenile law, to be replaced by a statute which would treat them according to the same laws as adults.
The CDU want youngsters to be tried as adults
The warden of Berlin's Plötzensee Correctional Institute for Juveniles, Marius Fiedler, says that such debates date back decades, and that they are too general to be widely effective. "You always just have to do the right thing, and you can only do that by looking at each individual case. It's a matter of recognizing the problems early on and steering the youngsters in the right direction." He added that there is only one 16 year-old inmate at the Berlin center and none who are younger. So does that render the CDU plea to reduce the age of accountability unnecessary, or is it an indication that the system is simply too lax?
Prevention is better than cure
Fact is, Germany is not particularly tough on its young lawbreakers. Chairman of the Juvenile Court Association Bernd Sonnen says the system is geared to try and work with criminal youngsters in such a way that they can avoid being incarcerated and prevent a career in crime before it is too late.
"Between 66 and 69 percent of youth crimes in Germany are resolved out of court. The offenders can repair damage they have caused, they can take part in anti-aggression training or in mediated face to face sessions with their victims," he explained. "The success rate of the latter is particularly successful, and the advantage is that they do not become labeled criminals which is often a self-fulfilling prophecy."
As many as 69 percent of youth crimes never make it to court
But that is of little consolation to the victims of the crimes which continue to be part of the fabric of society here. Sonnen says he can understand the calls to lock delinquents away, and the belief that a harder stance will prevent re-offending, but adds that it simply isn't the truth of the matter.
"Sure, putting people behind bars is the toughest measure we have on offer, but it is also proven that it creates the highest rate of repeat offending. When someone has been locked up for a given period and is then suddenly set free, they are highly likely to just go out and commit another crime," he said.
Rise in violent juvenile crime
Marius Fiedler agrees that a jail sentence should be an absolute last resort.
"Of course there are countries which are much tougher with their young criminals. The state of California locks away about eight times the number of juveniles that we do, but are crime levels there are lower as a result?" the governor asked.
The overwhelming majority of prisoners in Germany are male
Sixty percent of the 554 male prisoners detained at the Berlin young offenders institute are there as a result of committing violent crimes, from armed robbery to murder, and the picture is much the same across Germany as a whole. Although crimes such as theft are declining, reported incidences of juvenile violence are indeed on the rise, but Sonnen says the onus is on the word reported.
"We have become sensitized to violence and we are prepared to do something about it, to denounce violent crime. Whereas ten years ago school directors would have denied any sign of brutality in their establishments, they are now willing to admit that the problem exists," he explained.
And more often than not, the problem is the consequence of other, personal problems which date back to early childhood days. Fiedler says if there is anything that the young men who walk through the correction center gates have in common, it is bad family relations and a poor education.
A glance inside
With that in mind, places like Berlin Plötzensee operate a strictly no punishment policy, but offer an extensive range of schooling, apprenticeship and work opportunities to try and generate a different sense of self-worth in the youngsters while they are inside. For some it is the best they have ever known.
"A lot of them develop well inside, then shortly before their release date, they do something silly so their sentence is extended. They do it because they are afraid of life, and of having to leave this protected space," Fiedler said.