Are five months in prison too much for climate activists? “The defendants are not impressed by anything else”

Published On: 26.April.2023Categories: Legal2 min read
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Christina Schröder writes about legal topics for the Love & Law Blog at Recht 24/7.

Recently, several climate activists were sentenced to harsh penalties in Heilbronn. Judge Julia Schmitt sentenced two men and a woman to prison terms of five, four, and three months without probation for blocking a street for several hours. The verdict was perceived by some as too severe, but also applauded. The tough judge? The Heilbronn District Court sees it differently. The defendants would not be impressed by anything else, the judge stated in her reasoning.

Criticism of harsh penalties

Experts, however, view the decision critically. For example, Katrin Höffler, professor of criminal law, criminology, and legal sociology at Leipzig University, denies that harsher penalties have a positive effect: “A higher punishment does not deter, on the contrary, accepting serious negative consequences is precisely part of the protest. Negative labeling will lead to a growing division,” she told the Tagesspiegel. Tobias Singelnstein, professor of criminology and criminal law at Goethe University Frankfurt, shares a similar view.

The hope of prevention through harsher penalties will not be fulfilled. A higher punishment does not deter, on the contrary, accepting serious negative consequences is precisely part of the protest.

Support for the district court

Michael Reißer, the spokesperson for the Heilbronn District Court, counters and cites an example from practice: “One of the suspended sentences was suspended by Ms. Schmitt. The accused has pledged to now focus on his education and no longer want to have anything to do with climate activism. We here at the court assume that the previously imposed harsh penalty has fallen on fertile ground.”

The Union also supports the decision of the district court. Günter Krings, legal policy spokesperson for the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, criticizes too lenient sentences by the judiciary. “Through a statutory increase in the penalty framework, we must deter more so-called climate activists from criminal offenses throughout Germany,” Krings told the Tagesspiegel.

Michael Reißer emphasizes that the recent verdict of the Heilbronn District Court makes it clear that the rule of law is at least capable of action in case of repeat offenders: “A prison sentence can only be suspended on probation if there is a positive social and criminal prognosis.”

The verdict of the Heilbronn District Court is another example of the controversy surrounding the handling of climate activists. It shows that the decision on the appropriate penalty for protest actions is not only about criminal evaluation but also political considerations. The question of whether penalties are deterrent or fuel protests further remains open. However, it is clear that even a good cause does not justify criminal means. Protests must take place within the framework of the rule of law.

It remains to be seen whether the Union’s motion in the Bundestag will be successful. One thing is certain: the controversy surrounding climate protests will continue.