Christmas Amnesty - when mercy goes before justice

As sure as Christmas comes, so does the Christmas amnesty for prisoners every year. Approximately 2,000 prisoners nationwide are released early from prison outside of the rule of law. The only justification: an act of charity. But this mercy is not without controversy.

The penal system is a matter for the federal states. Accordingly, each state has its own rules on the Christmas amnesty. As a result, the number of amnesties varies considerably from state to state. In the most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, it affects around a thousand prisoners each year, while the number of amnestied prisoners in the other states is significantly lower.

Who gets to leave prison? - Amnesty for Christmas

Amnesty as a Relic of the Authoritarian State

Historically, amnesty is a relic of the authoritarian state, which believed itself to be above the law. By word of the law, amnesty and the associated early release from prison is a grant of clemency based on ministerial authorization. The state ministers of justice regulate the conditions for early release of prisoners. The amnesties themselves are decreed by the prosecutors' offices as authorized enforcement authorities.

Amnesty Subject to Conditions

The conditions for an amnesty vary from state to state but are similar in their basic features. In principle, amnesty is granted only if:

  • the prisoner has conducted himself well,
  • he has been in prison for a minimum period of time (usually more than one year),
  • the regular end of the sentence is between November of the current year and January of the following year,
  • he has not been found guilty of any serious violent or sexual offenses,
  • housing and subsistence are provided after his release.

Amnesty only upon Application

If the prisoner meets these requirements, he must apply for Christmas amnesty on his own behalf to the competent authority. Since the Christmas amnesty is not a general amnesty, the individual case is carefully examined. If the result of the examination is positive, he can be released as early as November. In this way, he should be given sufficient time to complete any necessary official procedures before the Christmas holidays.

Bavaria and Saxony are Merciless

Legally, the granting of the Christmas amnesty is highly controversial. Bavaria and Saxony shear from the phalanx of the remaining countries and do not grant. They point out that

  • the length of a prison sentence is determined by independent courts,
  • The time of release cannot be a question of the season.
  • They qualify the Christmas amnesty as an arbitrary act.
  • Such unequal treatment of prisoners is something unfair since the granting depends solely on the fortuitous outcome of whether the end of the term of imprisonment falls in the summer or the Christmas season.

Mercy is Irrational by its very Nature

Proponents of Christmas amnesty argue that opponents have failed to understand the nature of Christmas amnesty as a pure act of mercy.

    • Grace, they argue, defies the legal categories of justice and equal treatment.
    • Mercy is always the absence of justice.
    • It is always legally undeserved.
    • It is a gift of freedom.

The legal philosopher Gustav Radbruch described grace as the "lawless miracle within the juridical world of law."

In this context, a pope once pointed out that, according to human standards, absolute justice reigns only in hell, while grace reigns in heaven. He was referring to the biblical parable of the workers in the vineyard, in which the workers who came later received the same wages in the end out of mercy as those who had worked from the beginning.

Practical Reasons also Play a Role

The judiciary invokes the principle of cultivated humanity, although malicious tongues suggest that practical considerations also played a not insignificant role. The amnesty also has a significant effect on relieving overcrowded prisons (roughly 13,000 prisoners in NRW alone). Expensive prison places are saved by the amnesties for several thousand days.

Not Everyone wants the Pardon

Prisoners are not forced by amnesty. Time and again, prisoners who would easily meet the requirements refrain from applying. Some are downright afraid of having to spend the Christmas days outside in freedom. And those who can spend the Christmas days with their families as a result of the amnesty should not really be bothered in a tolerant society with a Judeo-Christian cultural history. Christmas amnesty - a color to bring a warm light right to Christmas.

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