Hamburg, Germany: Preventive Detention Controversy Splits Politicians and City Residents
A ruling in spring 2011 by the German Constitutional Court enables dangerous criminals in preventive detention to return to living “a normal life”. And that includes having a place to stay, becoming part of a new neighbourhood. German politicians now have a burden on their hands and residents have serious safety concerns. A look at the recent situation in Hamburg, where two criminals have already been released.
Last week the local media in Hamburg, of northern Germany, were once again buzzing on a subject that has been occupying the city’s residents and politicians for months. A sexual offender moved in to a house selected by Hamburg’s senate for released criminals who were in preventive detention. Another man in the same situation moved in to the same house. The building is a former nursing home in a district called Jenfeld. Before that this ex-convict was living in a mental facility. The planned moves have been made public for several months now and have since then been steadfastly met by almost daily furious protests from Jenfeld residents.
The media reported the offender entered the house in blue jeans and a striped orange-yellow jacket, with a black Labrador in tow. He could have been any ordinary man, except for the eight policemen stationed around the house as he walked. Several of them will be doing round-the-clock surveillance of the new tenant. He was driven over in the dark, as a safety precaution, in a column of four police cars. As soon as he entered the apartment, he pulled the curtains shut. The message from locals must have gotten to him. But then, he had been moved from place to place several times before.
Previously some 300 residents had protested against the planned move. They expressed fear for their children in news reports and some said the city had to find another place for cases like these, not so close to or definitely not in residential neighbourhoods. Other parents from Jenfeld voiced definite concern since their children pass the house where the ex-convicts now live on the way to school.
Before the sexual offender moved in, residents had manned the driveway up to the house daily. Organizers of the protests mistrusted authorities’ assurances that locals would be informed before the criminals move in to the house.
According to media reports, the men themselves did not want to move to this particular location. Protests have been energetic, since it has become public that the senate planned to move the two men to Jenfeld. But Hamburg’s justice senator, as well as the senator for internal affairs stood firm. Jenfeld was the only available suggestion. Letters were sent to more than 23 000 households announcing the decision, yet protests persisted.
The ongoing discussion was caused primarily by a decision made by the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg, in May 2010. The news website Spiegel International reported with the aggressive headline: European Court Ruling Forces Release of Rapists and Murderers. According to their report, as a consequence of the court ruling in Germany almost 200 criminals could be eligible for release.
The ruling prevented belatedly imposing preventive detention was a violation of human rights. As a consequence, of the 30 dangerous criminals who were in preventive detention in Hamburg’s jails or correctional facilities, 16 could be released until 2018. Among them are 14 violent criminals.
In turn the decision of the Court in Strasbourg provoked a follow-up ruling by Germany’s Constitutional Court in May 2011 that the preventive detention policy in the country was unconstitutional. It is seen as a violation of human rights to keep a criminal who has already served a sentence in such a facility. Yet the very purpose of preventive detention serves to prevent individuals committing another crime.
At the time the website of the Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, quoted the head of a preventive detention department in Aachen, in the West of Germany, who voiced many of the main questions worrying people: “Who should stay and who should go? And when they are released, where are they supposed to go, where are they going to live? All these questions are not so easy to answer. Our efforts to accommodate prisoners’ progression back to freedom in the past have met with many difficulties. They know what awaits them outside, and what doesn’t await them, and that society doesn’t really want them.”
The plain fact is that the typical resident, or a woman or parents aren’t thinking much about the European Court of Human Rights when they find out a convicted rapist, regardless of whether he has served his sentence or not, is moving in nearby. Survival and safety instincts kick in and they rule the brain.
Usually in Europe during a case the presiding judge decides whether or not to include preventive detention in a verdict, if based on evaluations a criminal is considered likely to prevent a further crime despite serving time in jail. The Constitutional Court in Germany underlines the importance of differentiating between where prisoners serve their sentences and preventive detention, namely that facilities for the latter should be as liberating as possible.
Heated discussions on the issue continue between politicians. Not long after the court ruling Spiegel International quoted Konrad Freiberg, the head of the police union GdP in Germany. Monitoring dangerous criminals released from preventive detention is posing a serious problem, as the police do not always have the resources to continuously do that. It also brings up additional costs.
So this whole thing is far from over. Where do released criminals go? Just how probable is it that they themselves are ready for such a move? How are residents of cities supposed to cope if they find out someone like that is moving in nearby? Isn’t it justified to feel scared and angry? Shouldn’t politicians take those feelings, the protests they provoke, the valid safety concerns in to account? At present it seems like the questions keep piling up and a solution is far from sight.
Image note: this image is released under the creative commons license (source: Flickr)