New Berlin justice minister wants fare-dodgers to ‘clean up schools’

The designated justice minister for Berlin is pushing to punish fare-dodgers with social work rather than jail time, local media reported this week.

New Berlin justice minister wants fare-dodgers to 'clean up schools'
Photo: DPA.

Dirk Behrendt of the Green party, who is set to be officially appointed Berlin justice minister on Thursday, wants to make fare-dodging an administrative offence rather than a criminal one, punishable with social work rather than jail time.

Currently those who are caught riding public transit without tickets are fined €60. Transit companies can decide whether to file an official police report against fare-dodgers – whether after the first instance of the infringement or the third, according to Deutsche Anwaltauskunft, the magazine for the German Lawyers’ Association.

Offenders can then be sent to jail if they still refuse to pay a court-ordered fine, or if they have committed other crimes as well. At certain times, up to one third of the prisoners in Berlin jails were fare-dodgers who had refused to pay their fines, according to the magazine.

The Green, Die Linke (Left Party) and Pirate parties have long been pushing for fare-dodging to no longer be punishable with prison time.

But changing the law would require a national reform, and it's not within the coalition agreement of the new Berlin government to put forward such a change, according to Tagesspiegel.

“There are around 400 people who are serving time in prison… because they did not pay a fine,” Behrendt told the Berliner Morgenpost on Tuesday, adding that many of these people are fare-dodgers.

“These are people who actually do not belong in prison.”

Behrendt’s idea is that instead of going to jail, fare-dodgers would do social work, like helping to clean up or renovate schools, using the motto “sweating instead of sitting”, Tagesspiegel reports.

This in turn would also free up jails and lessen the burden on courts, argues Behrendt.

“If we could take around 200 of these people out of prison, then we would have more space.”

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Why a row has broken out in Germany over face masks

Wearing a face covering is considered to help slow the spread of coronavirus. But there are calls to get rid of the mandatory requirement in Germany. Here's the latest.

Why a row has broken out in Germany over face masks
Angela Merkel wearing a face mask on Friday. Photo: DPA

In April face masks became mandatory across German states in shops and on public transport in a bid to slow the spread of Covid-19. 

However, now a row over whether they should remain compulsory is breaking out across the Bundesrepublik.

It comes after politician Harry Glawe in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, spoke out in favour of getting rid of the mask requirement, or Maskenpflicht as it is known in German, to help the pandemic-hit retail trade.

“If the infection rate stays so low I can't see any reason to maintain the duty to wear masks in shops,” said the state's economy minister, who is a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU).

“I can fully understand why the retail sector is so impatient for us to end compulsory mask wearing,” he told Welt am Sonntag.

Glawe told the newspaper he expects the state to announce an end to mask wearing in shops during a meeting of the state government on August 4th. He added though that social distancing rules – 1.5 metre distance is required between people not from your household in Germany – will likely be kept in place.

READ ALSO: 'Get rid of deodorant': How Berlin's BVG wants to encourage face masks

'Coronavirus is still there'

Germany's Health Minister Jens Spahn said he was opposed to the idea of getting rid of the requirement to wear masks.

Spahn wrote on Twitter that he understood “impatience and the desire for normality”. But the coronavirus is “still there”. 

Where distance can not always be ensured in closed rooms, the mask is “necessary”, wrote Spahn.  However, amending coronavirus regulations is up to individual states rather than a federal decision.

Spahn reaffirmed his views on Monday on Deutschlandfunk Radio. He said he believes wearing a mask is “still important” in order “to protect yourself and others”.

The state premier of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Manuela Schwesig, also indirectly opposed the proposal of her economics minister, wrote Spiegel on Monday.

Just last week the state government had decided to extend the obligation to wear masks on public transport and in shops, Schwesig wrote on Twitter. The mask “is not popular, but it works”, she said.

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Glawe said he planned to start talks with his colleagues in Bremen, Hamburg, Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein.

“We are trying to get a uniform regulation for all northern German states,” the CDU politician said. “I would even prefer a nationwide end to the obligation to wear masks in shops.”

READ ALSO: North-east Germany considers ending mask wearing in August

Across Europe there's been a mixed reaction to face coverings in the pandemic. Switzerland was reluctant for months to make masks compulsory but has now introduced a requirement. Germany, Italy, France and Austria have had the 'mask obligation' since late April.

Scotland is also set to introduce mandatory face coverings in certain public spaces from July 10th.

READ ALSO: 'You'd see me in a mask at the supermarket': Merkel insists she follows coronavirus rules

States split on the mask obligation

Several German states, including Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg, however, have rejected this step at the moment.

And Rhineland-Palatinate said that particularly during the holiday season it was important to keep the number of infections down.

A spokeswoman for the state health ministry told the Rheinische Post newspaper that lifting the obligation to wear masks would send the wrong signal at this stage.

Lower Saxony's economy minister Bernd Althusmann, on the other hand, spoke out on Sunday in favour of changing the “strict mask obligation in the retail trade into a recommendation in the coming months” if the number of infections remains low.

Althusmann wants to discuss “whether we should turn compulsory mask wearing into a recommendation” after the summer holiday end in August.

The retail trade in Lower Saxony is suffering massively, he stressed. However, this view did not meet with approval in the Lower Saxony state chancellery.

“The state premier is still of the opinion that we must be very careful in dealing with coronavirus,” the chancellery said.

Masks are 'reasonable demand'

Social Democrats (SPD) leader Norbert Walter-Borjans has also taken a clear stance against getting rid of compulsory masks and, according to him, Chancellor Merkel agrees.

“I spoke with the Chancellor about this today, and we agree that wearing masks in shops is a demand, but a reasonable demand,” Walter-Borjans said during a live broadcast on Sunday by Bild newspaper.

The SPD leader spoke out in favour of continuing to exercise caution during the pandemic. “In the store I will put on a mask. And if everyone does, we will have contained a large number of possible infections,” said Walter-Borjans.