Is juvenile detention an effective deterrent? | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 03.11.2013
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Is juvenile detention an effective deterrent?

In Germany, young criminals increasingly find themselves doing social work rather than time in prison. A prominent judge is warning that this is no deterrent - but statistics paint a different picture.

It's not easy to get on to Günter Jauch's TV chat show. Those who do get invited to sit in one of those orange armchairs on the primetime Sunday evening program can be sure that millions of Germans are watching them.

This was the forum in which Andreas Müller – "Germany's toughest youth judge," as he's been dubbed by the tabloid press – presented his latest book. Entitled Enough Soft Society!, the book calls for an end to the "blind clemency" Müller says is being applied in juvenile criminal law. The judge claims that for decades this clemency has simply been creating new offenders, and new victims.

"Sometimes it has to be prison"

"I really don't want young people to go to prison. But sometimes it is necessary," Müller told DW. He added that the state mustn't come across as a paper tiger in its dealings with violent teenagers.

Judge Andreas Müller from Bernau near Berlin (Photo: Siegfried Pielken)

Judge Andreas Müller argues that "we have to be tough sometimes"

When it comes to his courtroom, Müller insists on maintaining certain rules. He always wears a robe, and insists that everybody must rise when he enters the room, from which the combat boots typically worn by many neo-Nazis in Germany are banned.

"The message to the offenders has to be clear: ‘If you cross a certain line, you're going down.' If that message gets around," says Müller, "then other young people will know that this judge means business."

But does imprisonment actually stop people from committing crimes? Christian Pfeiffer of the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony says not.

"Prisons have traditionally been institutions that teach people violence, rather than institutions of prevention," Pfeiffer warned in an interview with DW.

He and his team conducted a study of 6,000 young inmates, and found that one in three had been a victim of violence in the previous four weeks. "Some of them benefit from therapies they receive in prison, but the majority are influenced in a negative way," the criminologist stressed.

Christian Pfeiffer points to figures from Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), according to which. 400,000 suspects aged between 14 and 21 were registered last year. "It's a fact," he says, "that of all the European countries, Germany is seeing the steepest decline in juvenile violence.

Criminologist Christian Pfeiffer (AP Photo/Eckehard Schulz)

Criminologist Christian Pfeiffer warns that prisons school young offenders in violence

"The most brutal crimes," says Pfeiffer, "such as homicides among teenagers, have gone down 46 percent since German reunification in 1990. Over the past 15 years, the number of cases in German schools where somebody required hospitalization as a result of a fight has gone down by 56 percent."

It seems that teenagers in Germany were, in fact, never more peaceable than they are today.

Are statistics the same as facts?

But in his book Andreas Müller writes ironically that statistical trends like these are just wishful thinking. Violence is still omnipresent, he says. Müller believes that the decline in juvenile crime is the result of a new generation of tougher fellow judges.

"Over the past two decades, the prevailing idea among juvenile court judges was to make sentences as lenient as possible. But that's slowly changing. We have to be tough sometimes. And that's how we're emptying the detention centers," says Müller.

Christian Pfeiffer's assessment of the situation is completely different. He believes that milder penalties and pedagogical work are what has reduced the number of detainees. Since the year 2000, the number of prison sentences passed in Germany has gone down by one fifth. Pfeiffer maintains that this development is partly the result of new legislation, as well as of Germany's economic situation.

"In 2000, Germany took away parents' right to hit their children," he says, adding that children who have been violently abused tend to be more violence-prone themselves. Pfeiffer lists other key tendencies: "There are also lower alcoholism rates among teenagers, youth unemployment has been going down, and violence is increasingly seen as unacceptable."

'Enough soft society' - Andreas Müller's book (Photo: Herder publishing company)

Müller's book has reignited the debate about dealing with young offenders

No common ground

At the moment, juvenile court judges can be fairly creative in their sentencing. They can, for example, order an offender to be home by 8pm, to stay away from their local pub, or they can ban them from going to see thrash rock concerts.

But when it comes to more traditional forms of punishment, their hands are tied. They can order juvenile detention of up to four weeks, or a prison term of at least six months. There is no option in between. Judge Müller would like to have more tools at his disposal – such as a two-month prison sentence.

For Christian Pfeiffer, such short periods of imprisonment, particularly juvenile detention, are simply redundant. "When a judge puts someone behind bars for a weekend, or for three weeks, it's just like inflicting a form of corporal punishment," he says. Pfeiffer believes longer jail terms are necessary, but only for especially brutal and excessive perpetrators. "In cases like these, we can hope that the process of growing up, or therapy, or training programs in prison will eventually get through to the offenders."

Both men interviewed by DW have regularly sat next to each other in podium discussions or on TV shows. Rarely have they found any common ground.

"Professor Pfeiffer deals with theory", says Müller, "but we juvenile court judges are in the courtroom every day."

Pfeiffer doesn't pull any punches, either. "When [Müller] reads the statistics, he doesn't see what the reality is. He shapes reality to fit his own hypotheses, to justify his sentencing. And his hypotheses are, quite simply, nonsense."

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