“Some of them take their own lives”: is the planned reform of alternative imprisonment sufficient?

“My father passed away three years ago, and that’s when my mother’s dementia started. My sister passed away after that and now I take care of my mother alone. This is no longer possible due to my imprisonment. Please enable me to take care of my mother again.”

A desperate prisoner wrote this letter to the organization “Freiheitsfonds”, which buys fare dodgers out of prison. Such requests are frequent, even prisons report to “free fund‘ and ask for relief.

Every year around 50,000 people are imprisoned in Germany for the so-called substitute imprisonment, most of them for driving without a valid ticket, followed by theft and petty crime. Anyone who fails to pay a fine imposed by the court must serve a replacement term of imprisonment.

The fines are imposed in daily rates, the amount of which depends on the income of the offender. Poor people in particular are affected by imprisonment. Many people find this regulation unfair: the court came to the conclusion in its judgment that imprisonment is not appropriate for the crime; it has therefore consciously opted for a fine.

The problem is the stigma attached to imprisonment, which is not reduced by cutting the prison term in half.

Manuel Matzkespokesman for the nationwide prisoner union GG/BO

It is also criticized that the replacement prison sentence costs the state a lot of money. Every day from 2011 to 2019, an average of 4,326 people were jailed simply for not being able to pay their fines. A day in prison costs the state about 150 euros.

The traffic light coalition therefore wants to reform the sanctions law. However, the current draft law presented by Federal Minister of Justice Marco Buschmann (FDP) and which was recently discussed in the Bundestag for the first time does not want to completely abolish the alternative prison sentence.

It only provides that in future there will be only one day of imprisonment for a two-day fine, i.e. the prison sentence will be halved. “We are assuming a high savings volume for the countries in the double-digit million range. If the money stays in the judicial system, the rule of law will be helped a lot,” commented Justice Minister Marco Buschmann on the decision. In practice, the substitute imprisonment is a demonstrably effective means of enforcing the fine, he told the Tagesspiegel.

Those who believed it would be possible without them like to refer to Sweden. “In fact, the alternative prison sentence played almost no role there for many years. The result: Exactly 41.4 percent of all fines that were legally imposed in 2015 could not be enforced within five years and were therefore statute-barred.” In almost half of all cases, a legally established criminal offense remained unpunished. “No one can want that,” says Buschmann.

We are assuming a high savings volume for the countries in the double-digit million range. If the money stays in the judicial system, the rule of law is greatly helped.

Marco BuschmannFederal Minister of Justice (FDP).

Manuel Matzke, the spokesman for the nationwide prisoners’ union GG/BO, regrets that the traffic light does not want to completely refrain from imprisonment as a substitute. “The problem is the stigma that comes with imprisonment,” he told the Tagesspiegel. “That is not reduced by half the prison term. Here people are losing their homes, their therapy, their jobs, their dignity – because they are being taken care of.”

Many of those affected struggle with addictions. And there is even a law that puts health before punishment: According to Section 35 of the Narcotics Act, a prison sentence can be suspended for up to two years if the person concerned seeks therapy because of their dependency. However, this paragraph explicitly does not apply to substitute imprisonment.

Matzke describes the planned reform as “pure farce”. Those affected would continue to be punished for their poverty, everything else was “beautiful laundry”. “We demand a complete decriminalization of driving without a ticket.” In addition to the stigmata of the replacement prison sentence, trauma is not uncommon, reports Matzke.


People have to serve a substitute prison sentence every year in Germany.

“There are no execution plans for these people, they should simply do their time there, in short they are simply kept in custody. A separation of offenders does not take place in the prison institution either. So that people who, for example, drove without a valid ticket are confronted with people who are imprisoned for serious bodily harm or other things.

There are only negative consequences. We’re talking about desocialization. A few weeks or months can be enough to socially uproot a person.

Tobias SingelnsteinProfessor of criminal law and criminology at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main.

Matzke tells of a deaf person who was completely overwhelmed by the time in prison, of the mother of a few months old baby who is supposed to hand her child into the care of the youth welfare office in order to start a substitute prison sentence, of a homeless person who is serving 80 days had to.

Is it really so bad? Deprivation of liberty is highly problematic anyway, said Tobias Singelnstein, professor of criminology and criminal law at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, in an interview with the Tagesspiegel. “In the case of a longer prison sentence, there may be positive developments, for example if training or treatment takes place. The relatively short substitute prison sentences only have negative consequences. We’re talking about desocialization. A few weeks or months can be enough to socially uproot a person.”

Criminologists consider the alternative prison sentence to be counterproductive

From a criminological point of view, there is no need for substitute imprisonment, it is actually counterproductive. Singelnstein says it is a mystery to him why the legislature only went halfway with the reform. “Apparently there is concern that people would not pay without this threatening gesture. The reality is different. The people who don’t pay are primarily those who lack the social resources and capacity to deal with criminal proceedings and fines, who are unable to avoid imprisonment.”

Much more can be achieved with social work, agrees Ulrich Schneider, General Manager of the Parity Welfare Association. “This is about people who often didn’t even notice their fines. To punish them again for this is undue hardship.”

The association criticizes the reform. “It doesn’t go far enough.” The substitute imprisonment is nothing more than a modern debt tower, says Schneider. “Repaying debts at any price is practically sacred in Germany, it is an iron rule. In an enlightened society one should actually be further.”

Greens and SPD, the draft does not go far enough

Even in the traffic light, there is disagreement as to whether the reform is more of a minor reform. In his speech in the Bundestag, the SPD MP explained that 95 percent of those imprisoned who were serving a replacement prison sentence would have to make do with a net income of less than 1,000 euros.

It can never be acceptable to us that people in particular who are affected by poverty have to make their way to prison.

Carmen Weggelegal policy spokeswoman for the SPD parliamentary group.

“They have personal problems, don’t read their mail, are unable to deal with a court order and are unable to organize their lives on their own. That such citizens have to serve a prison sentence for petty crimes is unworthy of this state.”

Also Carmen Wegge, the legal policy spokeswoman for the SPD parliamentary group; told the Tagesspiegel that it is now necessary to examine whether the legislature has other options to prevent imprisonment. “It can never be acceptable to us that people who are affected by poverty in particular have to go to prison.”


percent of people serving an alternative prison sentence are suicidal.

The draft by Federal Minister of Justice Marco Buschmann does not go far enough for the Greens either. “That people for driving without a ticket being prosecuted while, for example, parking without a parking ticket is only an administrative offense is unfair,” said Canan Bayram, chairwoman of the legal committee of the Bundestag, the daily mirror. Bayram also calls for an adjustment to the assessment of the daily rate. “This should be based on the actual solvency of those affected and not on pure estimates.” In the coalition agreement, agreement was reached on the guarantee of defense for the accused in compliance with European law, ie independent of an application. “We are therefore expecting a corresponding draft bill from the Federal Ministry of Justice.”

Criticism also hails from the opposition. Halving the number of days in prison alone does not change the core problem, said Clara Bünger, the legal policy spokeswoman for the parliamentary group Die Linke, the Tagesspiegel. “Even a shorter period of imprisonment is a damn big cut in the life of those affected, with serious consequences. They face further social decline, job and home loss, social isolation and stigmatization through their stay in prison. In any case, I understand something different by rehabilitation and prevention.”

The sociologist Nicole Bögelein has been researching questions relating to substitute imprisonment at the University of Cologne for many years. She knows that fifteen percent of people who serve them, especially in the early stages, are suicidal. “Some of them also take their own lives.” She speaks of the shock of imprisonment.

“The loss of autonomy, being locked up, that does something to a person. The reform spares no one, they just stay in prison for a shorter period of time. And that for offenses where the legal sense would say they are petty offences. Where previously a court had ruled that the case did not require imprisonment and that the fine would suffice.”

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