No Mercy

One Strike and You're Out

Coming soon to a German prison near you? Source: DPA
Coming soon to a German prison near you?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Sentiment towards stricter penalties is growing in Germany, a country, where criminals are treated rather mildly, at least compared to many other countries. The motives for punishment change too – at least amongst law-students, according to a long-running study.

  • Facts


    • Support for longer sentences and the death penalty has been rising over the past several years with one in three law students in favor of executing criminals who commit certain kinds of crimes
    • Half of all students believe torture is acceptable to save a life or to prevent wide-scale destruction, such as a terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction. 
    • Fear generates greater support for stiffer punishments, but with a relatively low crime rate, the student’s responses are troubling to the instructor who conducts the surveys.
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The numbers are staggering.

According to recent surveys of German law students, one of every three favors use of the death penalty while more than half support torture under certain conditions. The figures have tripled over the last couple of years as future attorneys continue to lean toward more severe punishments.

The results are contained in surveys taken by Franz Streng, a criminal justice professor at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, who has been giving his first- and second-semester law students the same questionnaire since 1989, although he updates the survey periodically, including adding the question about torture in 2002.

At the time, law student Magnus Gäfgen had kidnapped and murdered the son of banker Jakob von Metzler. Wolfgang Daschner, vice president of Frankfurt’s police department, resorted to drastic measures in his efforts to force a confession from the suspect in the belief they might be able to save the boy’s life. He urged another police officer to threaten torture.

Both officers were censured for their actions. But today, the idea of retaliation and revenge is quickly growing in popularity among future attorneys.

In English, Mr. Streng’s name translates into “strict” or “severe,” but he doesn’t live up to his name. Instead, he is concerned about the direction his students are taking towards more severe forms of punishment. “I find that to be rather disturbing,” he said to Tagesspiegel.

Over the years, he has surveyed a total of 3,133 students. The answers were largely uniform until 1997, when he found the respondents calling for much longer prison sentences. Take, for example, the case of manslaughter in the heat of passion. In 1979, when Mr. Streng posed the question in his survey of what kind of sentence should be appropriate for the crime, the answers averaged out to six years. In 1989, he asked his students the same question and, again, it came out as six years, remaining at that level until 1997, when the length of sentences began to rise. By 2012, the average was nine and a half years. Some respondents even called for a life sentence.

“In the year 1977, eleven percent were for the death penalty. Now, it is almost 32 percent,” said Mr. Streng.

The reasons for more severe punishment have shifted, too. Keeping the general public safe from the perpetrator is today the most important goal, not so much the re-socialization of the criminal. The call for retaliation also is gaining in popularity.

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