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.

Keeping the general public safe from the perpetrator is today the most important goal, not so much the re-socialization of the criminal.

The punishment expected for a crime increases with fear. The greater the anxiety, the more severe the punishment, yet even the generally low fear of criminal activity today hasn’t prevented an increase in those who want to levy even sterner punishments.

“That worries me,” said Mr. Streng.

He believes everyone involved with the criminal justice system –judges, public prosecutors and defense attorneys– should be required to have additional training in criminology. Then, he argues, they would know what they can expect from a punishment and would be better able to recognize the frequently problematic consequences of severe punishment and the conditions in specific cases where it might be waived.

Life imprisonment is the most severe punishment in the German criminal justice system, he continued, and can only be made more severe through subsequent preventive detention. The death penalty was abolished in Germany, according to Article 102 in German Basic Law, largely in reaction to its mass use by the Nazis.

Even life imprisonment doesn’t actually last a lifetime in the judgment of the German Federal Constitutional Court. In 1977, the court set standards to define life imprisonment according to the constitution. The court classified as unconstitutional incarceration until death without the possibility of regaining freedom. Now, those sentenced to life in prison must serve 15 years, and then are eligible to be released on parole. On average, “lifers” spend about 20 years behind bars.

Student views on this form of punishment have shifted greatly. In a 1977 study, one-third demanded lifelong imprisonment be abolished, while only 6.7 percent considered it too mild a punishment in certain cases. By 2012, only one in 50 students favored abolishment while almost one in three considered life imprisonment too mild.

The respondents did require strict conditions for the use of such archaic punishments. For example, they would consider the death penalty in cases of sexual killings and gruesome murders. It should be noted the questionnaire did not provide options for offenses such as war crimes or criminal acts against children.

Meanwhile, torture was a viable option in extreme cases for half of the survey respondents. In a supplementary survey conducted between 2003 and 2010, torture was seen as an acceptable means to save a human life by more than 22 percent of the students. An additional 29.2 percent said torture could be used to prevent grave danger to the general public such as the use of weapons of mass destruction by terrorists. Only 42 percent completely rejected torture, which is illegal under German law.

There is a constitutional ban in Germany on the physical and mental maltreatment of detained persons, as well as a corresponding ban based on the European Human Rights Convention. Hopefully, students will learn a bit more on their path through the higher levels of law school, since both torture and the death penalty are violations of the constitution, which holds that human dignity is inviolable.


Fatina Keilani is a reporter for the city section of the daily Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel. To contact the author:

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