German courts largely sentence defendants under the age of 21 according to juvenile law in a bid to help them reintegrate into society and mete out punishments that fit the crime as well as the offender.
Juvenile courts can do more than sentence offenders to time behind bars
In a case that caused shockwaves in Germany, a court on Thursday, Oct. 4, convicted three young men of the sexual assault, torture and murder of a fellow inmate last year at a juvenile detention center.
A 17-year-old received a sentence of 10 years in prison, the highest possible as he was tried as a minor. The others, a 20-year-old and a 21-year-old, received 15 years and 14 years respectively.
The sentences are harsh considering that German courts can apply laws intended for minors to anyone under the age of 21. It's estimated that some 60 percent of cases involving offenders between 18 and 21 are settled in juvenile courts, even when the crimes are of a violent nature.
"The more serious an offense, the more likely it is to be tried in a juvenile court," said Bernd-Rüdeger Sonnen of the German Association for Juvenile Court and Juvenile Offenders, which advocates the rights of young offenders.
More options for juvenile court judges
Community service is often part of juvenile's sentences
Allowing defendants under 21 to be tried and sentenced according to juvenile law lowers the chances of repeat offenders by providing judges with more leeway in issuing appropriate sentences, he said.
"In general law you have fines, probation and jail sentences," Sonnen said. "In juvenile law there is a much wider palette of options."
While juvenile court judges can sentence offenders to a maximum of 10 years in jail, they can also order social training and aggression management courses and meetings with victims where offenders are forced to see the effects of their crimes and take responsibility for their actions.
These types of alternative treatments have proven to be more effective in keeping young offenders from relapsing, Sonnen said.
More than 50 percent of offenders dealt with in this manner stay away from crime contrasted with over 70 percent of young people placed in correctional facilities being arrested again.
Critics want tougher sentences
But not everyone is convinced that treating all offenders below the age of 21 as minors is the right tack.
Some conservative politicians in Germany are in favor of raising the maximum sentence from 10 to 15 years for offenders between 18 and 20 years of age. The southern German state of Bavaria has been pressing for a change in laws since 1998 but has failed to get the backing of the federal parliament.
This week, Beate Merk, Bavaria's justice minister and a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) renewed criticism that cases such as the juvenile prison torture and murder showed that young offenders were also guilty of serious crimes which weren't sufficiently punished with a ten-year prison sentence.
Offenders between 18 and 20 who are convicted according to juvenile law should thus get a tougher maximum sentence, Merk said.
Harsh punishments ineffective
But demanding that youth offenders receive punishments on par with those of adults misses the point of having a youth court, according to Sonnen.
The German juvenile court system focuses more on preventing new crimes, rather then punishing ones already committed, he added.
Keeping juveniles' doors locked longer is seldom beneficial, research showed
"It's not about harsher or milder punishments," he said. "It's about effectiveness, which leads to fewer victims."
Research published earlier this year by Klaus Boers and Jost Reinecke of Münster and Bielefeld universities, respectively, reached a similar conclusion.
"Deterrents, intimidation or simply harsh punishments seldom work and are usually counterproductive," their study concluded. It was based on interviews with 1,900 students from 2000 to 2003.
Though difficult to measure since most crimes committed by juveniles are of a bagatelle nature and go unreported, youth crime rates have been dropping since the end of the 1990s, the study said.
No rise in juvenile delinquency?
The results run contrary to official statistics released by German police, which show an increase in assault and other violent crime.
Experts say that a heightened sensibility in the media is partly responsible for the perceived increase in youth crime. At the same time, growing awareness has led the public and schools to report more crimes to the authorities.
"There is no empirical data showing there are actually more youths committing violent crimes or that the crimes have become qualitatively worse," Michael Walter, director of the Cologne University Institute for Criminology, told public broadcaster WDR. "The information available contradicts police data."