Germans Spare the Rod To Reform the Criminal

Terrorist's release over US outcry shows why `three strikes' won't fly

IRMGARD MOLLER, a terrorist imprisoned for the 1972 bombing deaths of three US soldiers stationed in Germany, walked out of prison Dec. 1 after serving 22 years of a life sentence.

Victims' relatives condemned her parole, and the United States State Department said it was ``disappointed'' that an ``unrepentant terrorist'' had gone free. But many in Germany felt Ms. Moller, a member of the ultra-left Red Army Faction terrorist group, had done excessive time for her crime. There was no public outcry, and the prosecutor's office did not appeal the parole decision.

Though its political nature make it exceptional, the Moller case helps demonstrate just how much German attitudes toward dealing with criminals differ from those in the US.

If she had been convicted in the US, Moeller might have been considered a sure-fire ``lifer,'' if not a death-row candidate. But in the German view of crime and punishment, mandatory sentences and the three-strikes-and-you're-out approach are no hit, even for the most vicious of criminals.

``It's strange to our understanding of criminal proceedings,'' says German Justice Ministry official Matthias Weckerling, referring to the US move to give mandatory life sentences to violent criminals and repeat offenders. ``We feel we must examine each case on an individual basis.''

It's not that crime is considered any less of a problem in Germany than in the US. Crime rates have shot up since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and opinion polls show that Germans, just like many in the US, consider crime to be one of the most important issues of the day.

The main difference lies in the search for a solution. The crime surge in the US has launched officials on a prodigious prison-building spree to accommodate toughening public demands to ``lock 'em up and throw away the key.'' German authorities, meanwhile, do not see stiff sentencing as a deterrent, and prefer to concentrate on prevention and rehabilitation.

``Our philosophy is to get people back into society as soon as possible,'' Mr. Weckerling said. ``Longer prison sentences aren't the appropriate manner to bring a person back into society in a reliable way.''

The German Constitution bans the death penalty. And while life sentences are handed out for murder, a convict in Germany can petition for parole after 15 years, and courts in most cases grant the requests.

In the Moller example, authorities are hoping her parole will be seen as a confidence-building gesture, helping to ensure that Red Army Faction activity permanently ceases. The group, whose terrorist activities destabilized Germany in the 1970s and early 80s, recently renounced violence.

In general, German authorities consider prison the punishment of last resort, especially for young offenders. Someone convicted of petty theft, for example, can avoid imprisonment by making restitution and performing an act of reconciliation, such as doing mutually agreed-upon chores for the victim.

``Resocialization instead of locking them up should be the way to go,'' says Christian Pfeiffer a law professor at the Institute for Criminology in the central German city of Hanover.

Mr. Pfeiffer suggests that differences in societal structures in the US and Germany help explain the varying attitudes regarding punishment. In the US, he hypothesizes, corrosive poverty and the significant gap between rich and poor are major forces driving the ``more cops, more prisons'' agenda. As some Germans see it, the have-nots in the US appear more willing to resort to crime and the haves seem increasingly anxious to insulate themselves.

``They [Americans] don't have an answer for the poverty question. But they are afraid of poverty, so they have no other solution other than building prisons,'' he says.

Germans, on the other hand, largely do not face such a poverty problem, thanks to a social-welfare system funded by high income and consumption taxes. That system has been strained by a large influx of immigrants over the last five years, but it still manages to keep the rich-poor gap from growing uncomfortably wide.

Even if German popular sentiment supported building more prisons, authorities would be hard-pressed to build them. Given the massive costs of German reunification, Weckerling explains, the nation's 16 states lack the funds to fuel a jail-construction boom.

The US, Pfeiffer claims, could find itself in a ``downward spiral'' if it clings to its current crime-and-punishment concepts.

``The system influences the way the law is administered,'' he says. ``If you build more prisons, then you want to fill them, and that closes your mind from considering alternatives.''

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