German society split over practice of preventive detention

The practice of preventive detention, under which German courts can keep violent offenders imprisoned indefinitely, has stirred controversy after the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the measure.

Shifty glances and nervous stares is all that could be spotted of Walter H, a murderer and sex offender now living in the German city of Saarbrucken. He is guarded all day, every day, by at least four policemen. Yet he has escaped from his minders before, and locals are worried he could do it again.

Mr. H should have still been in prison under Germany's policy of preventive detention – a measure designed to keep offenders behind bars, even after a sentence was served, in order to avert possible recidivism. However, it was a policy that fell afoul of the European Court of Human Rights, which has ruled the practice unlawful.

The German government argued it worked, and defended it to the end.

Of course there's the danger that a convict could stay in preventive detention for the rest of his life," admitted Wolfgang Shild, Saarland Secretary of State for Justice. “But to avoid this situation we have frequent specialist checks to assess their condition.”

Anti-Paedophile campaigner Thomas Bruckman opposes preventive detention. His alternative, however, is longer sentences in the first place.

Last year, another sex offender who avoided preventive detention was released back into his community – a move that still causes angry protests. Now these fears are being replicated across Germany.

A few of these criminals will repeat such crimes again,” Bruckman insisted. “That's the worst thing that could happen and it probably will happen because they weren't put away.”

It costs far more to keep offenders under guard in the community than behind bars. The German newspaper “Bild” put the figure at 12,000 euros a day compared to 100 euros a day in prison.

This may be a large price to pay when lawyers insist that the option hardly provides the freedoms of daily life.

If he goes into a shop, there's always two people following him. If he goes to a doctor, two people are next to him,” said Walter H’s lawyer, Michael Rehberger. “And it is impossible to have a normal life.”

As Michael Rehberger fights for greater freedoms for Mr. H., criminals' rights remain of little worry to most Germans anxious about the safety of their own families.

An estimated 200 potentially dangerous prisoners could soon be released across Germany. And while that might ease consciences in Strasbourg, it does not ease anyone's nerves in Germany.