‘Everything suddenly fell apart’: Peter, 43-year-old German, sent to prison for cheating on bus while homeless

I often cheated on public transport, especially when I was homeless“, admits Peter, 43. At the time, this Munich resident did not seem to earn him several stays in prison.

In 2021, Peter, who wishes to remain anonymous, receives a letter from the Munich public prosecutor’s office, asking him to pay more than 4,000 euros for traveling 10 times without a ticket.

As he could not pay the fine, he was sentenced to 9 months in prison.Alternative sentence for deprivation of liberty“, a controversial device that the German government wants to reform.

Everything I had built suddenly crumbled“, this man, testifying to AFP, lived in odd jobs as a graphic designer or photographer and found a roof.

The 40-year-old claims he has already served 3 similar sentences between 2012 and 2019, for a total of … 27 months in prison.

Added to the Penal Code in 1935, under the Nazi regime, this penalty clause commuted fines to days in prison. Switzerland or Austria have similar restrictions.

“The Crime of Poverty”

Cheating on a bus, shoplifting or driving without a license can lead to up to 12 months in prison unless the teacher pays the fine.

It is not uncommon for people to be jailed for the crime of poverty“, denounces Arne Semsrod, who campaigns for the abolition of a regime that penalizes the most disadvantaged above all.

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95% of those affected by this sanction earn less than 1,000 euros per month, recalled Social Democratic Party MP (SPD) Johannes Fechner when he presented the reform in the Bundestag on March 15.

In 2022, more than 50,000 people went to jail for not paying fines, according to associations. Fraudsters in transport represent a quarter of them, Mr. Fechner assures.

In March 2022, Peter received a boost from the “Freiheitsfonds” or “Freedom Fund”, which paid him 1,200 euros to avoid an additional 82 days in prison.

Thanks to the collected donations, this Berlin association, led by Arne Semsroth, “liberates” those in the Peter case by directly paying fines.

The 40-year-old has been in and out of prison since 2012 and has struggled with depression. “A single day in jail can change your life“He trusts as long as he has to live with.”Traffickers, rapists and murderers“.

The reform refuses to completely abolish alternative sentencing because that would “call into question the entire system of sentencing,” according to the bill. It is “necessary to keep the mechanism of pressure,” says Susanne Hierl, conservative deputy (CSU).

The program specifically plans to cut incarceration in half.

Parliament has already tried 10 times to reform this rule and failed 10 times. It’s finally time to get there“, believes Marco Buschmann, Minister of Justice. The text may be voted on in the Bundestag in mid-May.

Costly fines

According to Arne Semsrott, the reform the government wants has not changed much. “The same number of people will continue to go to prison, only for shorter periods“.these”Constantly losing their job, home or place in treatment“, according to Johannes Fechner.

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Since its creation, Freiheitsfonds has “given” 667,000 euros to 716 people, or an average of 930 euros per person. “Justice does not check whether people have the means to pay!“, exasperated Manuel Matzke, spokesman for the federal prisoners’ association GG/BO, laments the lack of control of a judge in most cases.

In fact, “trials can only take place if the accused objects to the verdict in writing within two weeks,” which “makes the socially disadvantaged more vulnerable,” explains lawyer Elena Blessing.

According to GG/BO, a day’s imprisonment costs the German government an average of 150 euros. Freiheitsfonds is proud to have saved over 10 million euros in government coffers through its operations.

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