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Germany sees rise in crime among children

Helen Whittle
March 30, 2023

Germany's new crime stats show that there has been an increase in crime among children and young people. But experts are skeptical of lowering the age of criminal responsibility.

Mourners at the funeral of 12-year-old Luisa F. from the town of Freudenberg, who was murdered on March 11, 2023.
Mourners attend the funeral of murdered schoolgirl Luise F. in Freudenberg Image: Christoph Reichwein/dpa/picture alliance

The number of crimes committed by children in Germany has risen by a third in 2022 compared to the previous year, according to statistics released by the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) on Thursday.

A total of 5.6 million crimes were registered in Germany in 2022 — up by 11.5% on 2021. The figures also show an overall increase in crime of 3.5% when compared to 2019, the last year without COVID-19 restrictions. 

The number of suspects also has also risen by just over 10.7% to just over 2 million compared to 2021. The number of child suspects under the age of 14 has risen to 93,095 — a 35.5% increase on the previous year. Around 189,149 suspects were between the ages of 14 and 18 — in 2019 this figure was 177,082. The most frequent crime committed by children and young people is theft, followed by assault, damage to property and drug related crimes. 

"Children are the most vulnerable in society. Protecting them is my top priority," Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), said on Thursday as she presented the statistics. She spoke of an "appalling scale" and of case numbers that have been rising for years.

Holger Münch, president of the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), was keen to stress that comparing the 2022 statistics with those of the two previous years was "only conditionally" helpful, due to the effects of the pandemic. Overall, the crime level last year was "comparable" to that of the last pre-COVID year, 2019, Münch argued.

Interior Minister Nancy Faeser
Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said children were the most vulnerable in societyImage: picture alliance/dpa

The case of Luise F.

The release of the figures is likely to add fuel to an ongoing debate in Germany over whether to lower the age of criminal responsibility. Under German law, children reach the age of criminal responsibility at 14 — before which they cannot be prosecuted for committing a criminal offense. In some other countries, the age of criminal responsibility is lower: In England and Wales, the age of criminal responsibility is 10, while in France children can be sentenced at 13.

The debate was reignited by the killing of 12-year-old girl Luise F. from the town of Freudenberg in North Rhine-Westphalia on March 11. Two girls aged 12 and 13 are suspected of carrying out the attack. The authorities say the autopsy found multiple knife wounds and that the victim bled to death. The two girls, who are said to have confessed to the crime, have since been taken into the care of the Youth Welfare Office.

The crime statistics from other German states released earlier last week reflect an overall trend of rising crime among young people. In the southern state of Baden-Württemberg, for example, the number of child suspects went up by 33.4% on the previous year. A total of 10,490 children aged 13 and under were suspected of crimes in the south-western state in 2022.

Freudenberg | Police search the forest
The killing of Luise F. in Freudenberg shocked GermanyImage: Rene Traut/IMAGO

An old debate revived

The figures prompted Baden-Württemberg's Interior Minister Thomas Strobl and Justice Minister Marion Gentges, both from the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), to write a letter to their counterparts in the federal government calling for the age of criminal responsibility to be reviewed. 

In the letter, which referred to the Luise F. case, the ministers ask "whether today the mental and moral maturity of young people begins earlier than it did in 1923" when the law relating to the age of criminal responsibility was introduced.

Calls to lower the age of criminal responsibility have also come from Rainer Wendt, the head of the German Police Union (DPolG). "It's not about punishing children or sending them to jail, but about influencing their behavior, and criminal proceedings are very effective at doing that," Wendt told DW, adding that he believes children today mature much earlier than in previous decades.

"Courts can impose orders, they can monitor those orders, they can issue restraining orders and impose curfews," Wendt said. "The Youth Welfare Office can't do any of that without the support of the parents, and, depending on the milieu in which the parents operate, there could be no cooperation at all."

'Unserious and unhelpful'

But the consensus among psychologists, social workers, and criminologists is largely against lowering the age of criminal responsibility. 

"I think [the debate] is completely inappropriate, unserious and unhelpful," Sibylle Winter, a child psychiatrist and senior consultant at Berlin's Charité hospital, told DW, adding that severe acts of violence such as the Luise F. killing were "absolutely isolated incidents."

As far as the new statistics are concerned, Winter urges caution when it comes to identifying an overall trend showing more violence among children. In 2015, 79,371 crimes were committed by children under 14. That steadily declined until 2021 to reach 68,725. The number of crimes committed by 14 to 18-year-olds also fell from 218,025 cases in 2015 to 154,889 in 2021. 

"I can imagine that it is a peak following the COVID-19 pandemic, because the pandemic increased the psychological stress on children and young people, violence in family homes increased, but it will probably calm down again," Winter said.

The child psychiatrist also rejects the idea that children today are more mature than in previous decades. Although children under the age of 14 are assumed to know the difference between right and wrong in simple situations, the evidence from developmental psychology shows that the same does not apply to more complex situations. 

"Cognitively they are definitely not more mature," she says. "They are also definitely exposed to more risks through this whole social media situation that we have - they are online much more and are confronted with content that they can't process properly."

Winter argues that whether or not there are existing psychological issues, a range of effective measures can be applied independently of the criminal justice system.

"Anyone who commits such a one-time act of serious violence must face some consequences, and these are also available within the framework of the youth welfare system and family court proceedings," Winter concluded.

BKA chief Holger Münch
Police chief Holger Münch advised caution about comparing the statistics with previous yearsImage: Arne Dedert/dpa/picture alliance

'Hard cases make bad law'

Torsten Verrel, the head of the Department of Criminology at the University of Bonn, is also against lowering the age of criminal responsibility. He says that the debate always reignites in aftermath of rare but extreme cases of child delinquency. 

"There's a nice adage from the US that says: hard cases make bad law," Verrel told DW, adding that the idea that lowering the age of criminal responsibility would be an effective deterrent for children is simply naive.

"Child crime usually takes the form of shoplifting and damage to property, all that would come within the scope of criminal law and nobody wants that," he says. "Thankfully our political system is stable and sensitive enough to realize that this is a very populist demand that would lead to huge problems in practice."

The evidence from countries such as the US, England and Wales shows that lowering the age of criminal responsibility does not prevent children from committing crimes, says Friedrich Lösel, former director of the Cambridge Institute of Criminology and now a professor of psychology at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.

"The key issue is that are no clear age thresholds in development. In fact, some are advocating that the threshold should now go up until early adulthood because the brain is not yet fully developed before 28 or so," Lösel told DW. 

"I think we must really protect these young people as far as possible, but we should not only see them as victims," he added. "They have intentionally carried out a serious offense and we need very intensive rehabilitative measures, in some cases in secure units."

Edited by Ben Knight

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