Anyone who travels by train without a ticket and cannot pay their fine must be imprisoned. Such a substitute prison sentence often affects poor people. Not only is there a shortage of staff in German prisons, the number of inmates is also high.
Minor offenses are usually punished with fines, such as the “cheating of services” known as fare evasion, theft or fraud. According to research by BR and NDR, more than 46,000 people were sentenced in 2019 for “cheating services”. The amount of the fine depends on the net income of the convicted person and is given in daily rates, i.e. in installments. If you can’t pay it, you go to jail. According to estimates from 2018, this affects 7,000 people a year simply because of fare evasion.
A day in prison cost an average of 157.72 euros in 2021, according to a response from the federal government to a question from the Left Group. Costs that often far exceed the damage caused by the minor offences.
Federal Minister of Justice Marco Buschmann (FDP) now wants to halve the length of the alternative prison sentences. In the future, a day of imprisonment will be compensated for by two daily rates instead of just one as was previously the case. The corresponding draft of the ministry for the reform of the sanctions law is available to WELT. In 2023, the Bundestag is to pass the amendment to the law.
The traffic light coalition has found a “balanced solution”, says Katrin Helling-Plahr, legal policy spokeswoman for the FDP parliamentary group. “Criminal behavior must be punished, and nothing will change after the reform.” Instead of short prison sentences “if the fine is uncollectible”, the traffic light wants to “increasedly rely on community work as a sanction” and counteract an overload of the judiciary.
Sonja Eichwede, legal policy spokeswoman for the SPD parliamentary group, also praised the reform as a “principle of social justice”. The Greens see the reform as a first step. “It is important to decriminalize criminal offenses that have a scientifically researched connection with poverty, such as driving without a ticket,” said Canan Bayram, legal policy spokeswoman for the Greens parliamentary group. As “sweating instead of sitting”, alternatives such as community work are to be increasingly strengthened. For those who can neither pay the fine nor do work, there should be “care options outside of criminal justice,” said Bayram WELT.
“The reform doesn’t change the actual problem,” complains Arne Semsrott. With his “Freedom Fund” initiative, Semsrott has already saved 471 people who were unable to pay their fines from imprisonment, a total of 93 years in prison. And most of all they are poor. Semsrott speaks of “class justice” and calls for the complete abolition of imprisonment.
The reform does not go far enough for the left either. “In Germany far too many people are being punished for their poverty,” comments Clara Bünger, legal policy spokeswoman for the Left Group. Mostly poor, addicted and homeless people went into alternative custody – and that had to be completely abolished. “Poverty crimes must be countered with welfare state measures instead of imprisonment.”
The Union, on the other hand, believes that complete “decriminalization” is the wrong approach. The “deterrent potential of a replacement prison sentence” is indispensable, “because in many cases fines that allegedly cannot be paid are paid immediately when imprisonment is due,” said Günter Krings (CDU), legal policy spokesman for the Union faction. Krings finds revising the “conversion standard” “quite debatable” in order to alleviate the burden on those affected. Nevertheless, the Union politician finds a halving of the prison term “unoriginal”.
“The fine must also include imprisonment as a replacement,” criticizes Thomas Seitz, legal policy spokesman for the AfD parliamentary group. The reform would “throw the entire sanctions structure into imbalance”. She was a “mockery of all those citizens who pay their fines well.”
However, experts welcome the draft. Franz Streng, head of the research center for criminology and sanctions law at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, is convinced of the planned reform: The current law entails “a problematic increase in penalties if the withdrawal of just one day’s income is equated with a day in prison as a comprehensive one deprivation of liberty”.
In addition, the reform could relieve the penal system and thus mean considerable savings for the state treasury. Ulrike Paul, Vice President of the Federal Bar Association, agrees. Nevertheless, the reform “does not solve the underlying problem, but moves it to the area of enforcement,” Paul told WELT.
Jenny Lederer from the German Lawyers’ Association (DAV) considers it more logical to abolish the replacement prison sentence for people who are unable to pay their fine in the long term. Because this affects “not the people who are unwilling to pay, but who simply cannot or are overwhelmed,” said Lederer WELT.
But the traffic light is also planning tightening of criminal law: criminal offenses with a misogynistic motive or out of hatred against gender or sexual minorities are to have an aggravating effect in the future. This is currently possible as a so-called hate crime, for example with racist motives, but “gender-specific” reasons were not explicitly named.
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