Merkel's party charts course for state elections

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Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) have made fighting youth crime a key element of their campaign in state elections held later this month.

6 January 2008

Berlin (dpa) - Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) have made fighting youth crime a key element of their campaign in state elections held later this month.

A programme adopted by the CDU leadership on Saturday calls for stiffer penalties for juveniles convicted of violent crimes, while promising improved benefits for families and lower income taxes.

But the party ruled out an across-the-board minimum wage, a major demand of its Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partner, which has made the issue a central theme of its own election campaign.

The CDU wants the maximum sentence for young people convicted of serious offences to be increased from 10 to 15 years and a "warning shot" period of detention for those given probation for violent crimes.

Foreigners given a sentence of one year or more would be liable to deportation under the proposals, which also seek the introduction of boot camps where young offenders could be sent for re-education.

"Something has to be done," Merkel said after the plan was adopted unanimously in western city of Wiesbaden. "There is no point in delaying matters."

The demands are in line with those put forward by Roland Koch, CDU premier of the state of Hesse, who is seeking a third term of office in elections due on Jan. 27.

Koch, who is in danger of losing his absolute majority in the prosperous state, made his demands after surveillance cameras caught two Greek and Turkish youths savagely beating a retired school principal at a Munich underground station on Dec. 20.

"How much are we prepared to take from a small proportion of violent youths, who frequently have a foreign background," Koch said in an interview after the attack.

The Social Democrats have accused the CDU politician of fuelling anti-foreigner sentiment in order to gain re-election and said existing laws were sufficient to punish violent offenders.

In addition to Hesse, voters in Lower Saxony go to the polls on Jan. 27, with the city-state of Hamburg following a month later. The CDU rules all three states but opinion polls show them losing voter support.

SPD leader Kurt Beck has agreed to discuss the issue of youth crime with CDU as long it involves better application of current laws instead of introducing new legislation.

"This is better than taking hasty action arising solely from motives related to elections," Beck told the news magazine Der Spiegel.

Crime statistics in Germany are ambiguous about juvenile delinquency, showing assaults by those under 18 up 3 percent and by 18 to 21-year-olds up 6 percent in 2006. However overall crimes in those groups fell.

But Merkel said there was no disputing the fact that half of all violent crime in Germany were committed by people under the age of 21, and that 50 percent of those young criminals were foreigners. A perception of widespread violence by juveniles, many of them born in Germany but descended from "gastarbeiter" migrants who settled in Germany in the 1960s, has triggered the debate about ethnic crime.

About 15 million of Germany's 82 million people have an immigrant background.

Groups campaigning for immigrant rights have condemned the singling out of foreigners while criminal justice experts questioned the value of imposing stiffer penalties on delinquents.

"What is needed is a careful supervision of young offenders," said Bernd Maelicke, a professor of criminology at the university of Lueneburg.

Noting that the youth penal code was based on "re-education and not shock therapy," he said locking young people up for longer periods would only provoke more violence and turn them into repeat offenders.

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